The Cleveland State Vikings are halfway to their second NCAA Tournament birth in the past 3 years and will continue their quest tonight in the Horizon League Tournament Semifinals against old nemesis, #2-seed Butler Bulldogs. The Bulldogs, of course, rode Cinderella's slipper all the way to the National Championship Game in 2010 before losing to Duke. In 2009, it was Cleveland State and Butler in the Horizon League Championship, with the Vikings upsetting the Bulldogs on their home floor 57-54.
This season, however, it's been all Butler. The Bulldogs swept Cleveland State this season and holds an all-time record of 29-7 against the Vikings.
Jeremy Montgomery scored a game-high 16 points, leading four players in double figures, as the Cleveland State Vikings recorded the 14-point win over the Wright State Raiders in the second round of the tourney on Friday afternoon. Norris Cole added 15 points and six rebounds for the third-seeded Vikings, followed by Trevon Harmon and Josh McCoy with 14 and 12 points, respectively. Cleveland State, which led by as many as 23 points late in the contest, held the Raiders to just 36.2 percent from the field and 6-of-20 behind the three- point line in the matchup. Even though he had a game below his own standards yesterday, Cole is still the player to watch for the Vikings as he leads them in scoring (21.5 ppg), assists (178) and steals (72) and is also first on the glass (6.0 rpg) as well. Obviously one player can't do it all for a team at this stage of the season, which is why Harmon (13.4 ppg) and Montgomery (12.2 ppg) are also crucial to the squad's success now.
The Bulldogs may not have the same talent on the roster as they did last season when they made their improbable run all the way to the final game of the year against Duke, but still the squad has plenty of quality performers who can get the job done. Butler, which has won at least 20 games now for the sixth straight season and 13th time in the last 15 campaigns overall, follows the lead of Matt Howard who paces the group with his 16.8 ppg and is also first on the unit with close to eight rebounds per game. Sounds like a typical big man of course, but what makes Howard so unique is that he is more than comfortable stretching the limits on offense and letting loose with the occasional three-pointer, which he is hitting at a 44.6 percent clip right now. Shelvin Mack checks in with 15.3 ppg and is responsible for 111 assists in an effort to get his teammates involved in the action.
Perhaps Cole was laying low yesterday in order to unleash his biggest and best effort against the Bulldogs tonight. Whatever the reason for his sub-par performance, expect to see him rise to the challenge this time around and give the Vikings a fighting chance.
The winner will face the winner of the other semifinal - Valparaiso and Milwaukee - in Tuesday Night's Championship game.