For the past two years, college basketball analysts needed no more than three seconds, about the time it takes to type the word Butler, to pick the likely NCAA bid from the Horizon League Conference.
Indeed, the Butler Bulldogs dominated the conference in 2006 and 2007, winning thirteen and sixteen games, respectively. However, with Butler losing five players out of last year's seven man rotation, the 2008-2009 league title is ripe for the taking.
Enter Cleveland State, who in defiance of the 2007 pre-season coaches poll that slated the team to finish last, posted a 12-6 league record, good for second in the conference. While the team eventually lost to Butler in the championship game, it's impressive season performance declared loud and clear that the Vikings were a team to be reckoned with once again.
It was a long-time coming, as the last time CSU was of significance was in 1986, when 6-1 guard Ken "The Mouse" McFadden led the team to the sweet sixteen, including a victory over Knight's three-seeded Hoosiers.
In direct contrast to Butler, the Vikings return nearly all of their core players from their successful 2007 run, making them the favorite to capture the automatic NCAA conference bid this season. The mid-major top 25's initial ranking poll pegs CSU at number nine, right ahead of, you guessed it, Butler. Now, let's take a closer look at the team.
The Vikings are fueled by two senior players, point guard Cedric Jackson (14 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds per game in 2007) and power forward J'Nathan Bullock (15 points, 7 rebounds).
In fact, during 2007, this combo accounted for over 40 percent of the team's scoring, one-third of its rebounds, and nearly half of its assists. J'Nathan is the consensus pre-season pick for Horizon League MVP, but Cedric should steal some votes for that honor as well.
While I have the utmost respect for Bullock, Jackson is the clear spark plug for the team and key to its recent success. One needs to only look at the dismal record the Vikes posted the past three years with Bullock, despite his star numbers. Bullock, through no fault of his own, can only control so much of the game.
Whereas Jackson, by definition of his position of point guard, affects the whole team by being the table setter and improving the players around him. I truly believe that if Jackson does not hurt his ankle in the opening minutes of last season's championship game, CSU would have beaten Butler.
Coach Waters compares Jackson to NBA star Baron Davis. It is a valid comparison indeed, as Jackson much like Davis, works best in full speed mode. He has superb dribbling skills, helping him break down defenses and start easy fastbreak opportunities.
Watching Jackson last season, it seemed like the competition was running in malasis, as he was easily able to weave around players to set up open shots or create easy transition buckets.
Moreover, much like Baron Davis, Jackson has a deadly pull-up jumper. There is no need to be set up by teammates, as he is able to stop on a dime and nail long-distance shots on a consistent basis. He led the team last season in three-point percentage, at 39 percent, one of the top percentages in the conference. Jackson also takes advantage of his speed on defense, leading the leagues in steals during 2007, with nearly three per game.
On the flip side, Jackson did turn the ball over nearly four times a game last season. However, that is akin to complaining that Hale Berry has a crooked pinky toe. Look at the big picture and get over it. I also think that turnover ratio will improve dramatically this year due to increased familiarity after having one full season with his teammates under his belt.
Bullock, at 6-5 and 240 pounds, is a bruiser who can dominate the paint by bullying (no pun intended) for inside position through his size and great footwork. He is a monster on the glass, collecting 7 rebounds per game in 2008. His rebounding numbers have improved each season, so it is not out of the question that J'Nathan can average close to a double-double during 2008.
Bullock can also hit the outside jumper, as evidenced by ranking second on the team in three-point percentage, at 33 percent. During the off-season, he worked hard on improving his three-point shooting, and has shown pin-point outside accuracy during scrimmages and exhibition games so far. With his ability to mix it up offensively with an inside/outside game, he will be a nightmare to defenders. I would compare him to NBA player Al Harrington.
The rest of the roster is filled with solid, albeit complimentary players. Sophomores D'Aundry Brown and Norris Cole will look to help out offensively, and should both near the double-digit level in scoring on increased minutes.
Senior center George Tandy should stabilize the interior defense, building off his average of 4.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in only 18 minutes per game last season. And one or two of the slew of eight talented incoming freshman will need to step up to occupy some minutes from the regulars. In particular, freshman Jeremy Montgomery will need to adjust quickly to being the primary back-up point guard to Cedric Jackson.
The team took tremendous pride in playing defense in 2007, ranking second and third among the Horizon League in team 3-point (.323) and field goal (.422) percentage defense, respectively. In addition, CSU ranked third in rebounding defense, helping the team lead the conference in overall rebounding margin.
While individuals Bullock and Jackson get all the attention on offense, the team's defensive philosophy is a collaborative group effort, as illustrated by five players averaging more than 3.5 rebounds per game last season.
Coach Waters is planning on using a rotation of eight or nine core players to apply full-court pressure this season in the hope of tiring the opposition and creating easy transition baskets.
While CSU is definitely an up and coming team, it will only go as far as the super tandem of Jackson and Bullock will take them. When both players are on their game, this is a very hard squad to beat. If they are able pull out their capes on a consistent basis this season, another Sweet 16 appearance, ala 1986, is not out of the question.