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NCAA Basketball: Could Cleveland State be the Next Butler?

We all watched as Butler shot a dismal 18.8 percent against Connecticut on Monday night on the big stage. Embarrassing that they only shot 18.8 percent, but important in that we all watched. Butler’s on the map now. People know where Butler is and what the program represents. Not to be lost in Monday’s defeat is the fact Butler made it to the national title game back-to-back years against two of the game’s Goliaths. They matter now.  I was left wondering: Could Cleveland State do this?

Don’t think for a second that lots of luck isn’t involved. Butler needed last-second shots from Matt Howard to get past their first two tournament opponents. You have to be lucky, but you have to be good. You also need the competition to be watered-down, as many suggest it is now with the guys that are one-and-done and head off to collect paychecks.

You need players, ones that are capable of playing in the NBA someday. Not right now, but someday.  Players are the biggest thing. Brad Stevens got Gordon Hayward, the ninth overall selection in the 2010 NBA Draft, and Shelvin Mack, who many believe played his way into the first round of the NBA Draft if he elects to leave school early. Matt Howard could very well be selected in June as well. Three pros on one team is not something a lot of teams have. We all know it’s about players. Cleveland State had Norris Cole, who should hear his name called in June. And that was it.

There is talent in Northeast Ohio, but the problem is there are also a lot of colleges in the area. Butler competes in-state with Indiana, Notre Dame and Purdue. That’s TOUGH recruiting competition, don’t get me wrong. Those other three can afford to miss on recruits – and when they miss, their five-star recruits slip to three-star recruits. Butler has to recruit three-star kids and turn them into five-star talents. But even fourth in the state of Indiana is better than the fate Cleveland State faces.

The Vikings are competing with Ohio State – although probably not for the same kids. But think of in-state kids like Norris Cole. How did Cincinnati, Dayton and Xavier all miss on Cole? The whole Mid-American Conference whiffed too.  Cole is out of eligibility, so while he moves on, Cleveland State needs to replace him … and then find some additional weapons.

This is where the luck comes in. We’ve seen local talent like Delvon Roe and Tom Pritchard leave for Michigan State and Indiana, respectively. Garfield Heights is a factory (and its coach, Sonny Johnson, was a Viking), and it sends guys to big-time programs. People come into Northeast Ohio and export the talent. What Cleveland State needs is for one of those guys to want to stay close to home, or someone to transfer. Damon Stringer (Cleveland Heights High School) transferred from Ohio State to Cleveland State. Saint Ignatius’ Joe Rey left Xavier and returned to play for the Vikings.

Butler hit the jackpot with Hayward, Howard and Mack. Cleveland State hit it with Cole, but you need to hit on multiple studs … and have them on campus as the same time. It’s like playing a slot machine.

You need a great coach, and Butler clearly has one. Stevens is 117-25 in his first four years at the helm. Enough said. Gary Waters, the top man at Cleveland State, is 271-206 during stints at Kent State, Rutgers and Cleveland State. Waters has won NCAA Tournament games at Kent State and Cleveland State, but was just 28-52 in Big East play during his time guiding the Scarlet Knights. Of course, they aren’t traditionally a basketball powerhouse, but his time there wasn’t overwhelming. Waters is a good coach. Is he a great coach? He’s well-respected, that’s for sure. Cleveland State interim Athletic Director John Parry held the same position at Butler from 1990-2006, so he’s seen how programs are built at that level.

Butler has Hinkle Fieldhouse and Cleveland State has the Wolstein Center. I’ve never been to Hinkle, but we all know the lore. I’ve seen my fair share of Division I arenas, and I’m extremely impressed with the facilities Cleveland State has to offer.

They need the players. I have mixed feelings on the coach. The facilities are a check.

Could this happen here? The stars have to align. The Vikings are still far from the mountaintop. It doesn’t happen overnight. Butler has won at least 20 games every year since the 2005-06 season. It didn’t fall into this. It might be a few years away, but Cleveland State, with its resources, has a better chance than most mid-major schools. Waters might not be around long enough to see the project through (could Buckeye assistant Brandon Miller be the guy?), but it’s certainly possible.

The odds? Probably as good as getting three of the same kind on a slot machine. Brad Stevens was lucky, and here’s hoping the Vikings find similar magic.

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