Commentary

Deacons not ready for Vikings

Originally Published: March 20, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- Glass slipper?

How about brass knuckles?

The last Cinderella standing in this NCAA tournament is nobody's idea of a dainty thing wearing a tiara. The No. 13 seed Cleveland State Vikings, who humiliated fourth-seeded Wake Forest 84-69 here Friday night, are back-alley tough. They're a group of under-the-radar recruits molded into an overachieving team by a glowering coach who conducts practices that sometimes resemble street fights.

[+] EnlargeGary Waters
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesCleveland State's no-nonsense attitude starts at the top with Gary Waters.

There are rebounding drills with no out-of-bounds lines -- wherever the ball goes within the walls of the gym, the players go after it until someone takes possession. During a practice here leading up to the Vikings' game against Wake Forest, one of those drills ended when guard Josh McCoy crashed into a railing and had to be carried off.

"We go after each other and try to kill each other," coach Gary Waters said with a gap-toothed chuckle.

There are scrimmages without whistles. You want a foul called? Good luck.

"If you get to complaining about a foul, Coach G will tell you to rub some dirt on it," said the toughest of Waters' tough guys, senior forward J'Nathan Bullock.

There are scrimmages with no jump-ball calls, too. If two players tie up with the ball, they keep battling until someone rips it away -- sometimes fighting for 30 seconds over possession.

"I think it epitomizes what we're all about," associate head coach Jayson Gee said.

Cleveland State was all about hardihood Friday night, against an ACC dandy that wanted no part of the fight. The Vikings were far tougher, far smarter and far better coached against a team that was far taller and far more talented.

Wake and its future pros was a wiseguy pick in a lot of brackets to make the Final Four. But the young and flighty Demon Deacons have had problems all season with overlooking opponents. Fatal mistake this time.

"They thought we were going to be scared of their jersey name," said Bullock, a standout high school football player in Flint, Mich. "That's never the case with Cleveland State. We're not here to be no laughingstock."

The Vikings were so terrified, they led 9-0 after two minutes. Then 29-12 after 11 minutes. Then by as many as 19 in the latter stages of a game they never trailed in.

They did their job so ruthlessly well that, by the end, the biggest upset of the 32-game first round was an anticlimax. After their school's first NCAA tournament win in 23 years, hearkening back to the Mouse McFadden-led Sweet 16 Cinderella of 1986, they walked off the American Airlines Arena court almost matter-of-factly.

They thought we were going to be scared of their jersey name. That's never the case with Cleveland State. We're not here to be no laughingstock.

-- Cleveland State's J'Nathan Bullock

"Cleveland State is on the map," Waters said.

The coach is back on the map as well. It's been eight years between NCAA tournament victories for Waters, with a largely miserable stint at Rutgers stashed in between.

Now, an older and wiser man who built something of a mid-major power at Kent State has done it again at a commuter school from the Horizon League.

"It's coming back to that old feeling again," Waters said. "I had a five-year period at Rutgers that wasn't a great time for me. We did some winning and went to the NIT finals, but it wasn't a happy time for me."

Waters is an old-school hardass who is not naturally wired to catering to pampered high-major recruits. You needed those guys to compete in the Big East. You don't need them (or get them) in the Mid-American Conference or the Horizon -- you need hungry players who will buy into a low-glamour, defense-obsessed coaching scheme.

So while Rutgers has plummeted to new depths under Fred Hill, Waters is back in his mid-major comfort zone. He's taking second-tier recruits and pushing them past their perceived potential.

"They aren't worrying about who's going pro," Waters said of his mid-major teams.

That, instead, will be the concern for Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio, who could lose several players off this team to the NBA draft. While waiting for that to hash out, Gaudio will lose some sleep wondering how his team could be so thoroughly beaten.

Gee, the Cleveland State assistant, thinks he knows.

"One of the toughest jobs you have as coaches is convincing your kids they can play when their name is Cleveland State," he said.

[+] EnlargeCedric Jackson
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireCedric Jackson left it all on the court, needing an IV after the game.

While that seems undoubtedly true, there was more to this beatdown than that. Waters dramatically outcoached Gaudio as well.

The two moments that symbolized that were sideline inbounds plays in front of the Cleveland State bench. The call was "Flex," which means the Vikings have the option to run a backdoor lob if it presents itself, and both came in the second half.

Wake Forest was still hanging around at that point, up seven and struggling a bit to hold momentum. But inbounder Norris Cole made eye contact with splendid guard Cedric Jackson, and "Flex" was on.

Jackson sprinted away from his defender toward the hoop and Cole laid the ball up perfectly from a long way out. Jackson, a big-time talent who transferred to Cleveland State after two years at St. John's, grabbed it and slammed it home.

Adding insult to injury, the Vikings ran it again later in the half to Bullock for an easy layup. Wake Forest was caught flat-footed twice on the same play.

"When you give kids the freedom to make plays," Gee said, "those things happen."

Jackson gets more freedom than most, and he used it to tremendous advantage Friday. He was easily the best guard on the floor, finishing with 19 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and three steals -- meaning he now leads the nation in total steals this season.

"They couldn't keep him out of the lane," Waters said.

Jackson was so drained by his efforts that he cramped up and required an IV to rehydrate. That in turn left him bent over and shivering when he returned to the locker room.

As Jackson slowly sank into a chair, Cleveland State's teamwork was on display. Center Chris Moore put a warm-up jacket around Jackson's shoulders, then a towel. Meanwhile, Cole put a towel on his legs.

Quite frankly, Jackson looked terrible. I asked if he felt terrible.

"Yeah," he said with a weak voice, then smiled. "But it was worth it."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.