Coach Gary Waters is in his 11th season as the head coach of the Cleveland State Vikings. He has brought this program to the highest that it has ever been, including five different 20 win seasons. He is the winningest coach in CSU history with a career record of 185-150. Tonight, he brings his 1-2 Vikings to Rupp Arena to take on the top ranked team in the country. Cleveland State’s lone win this season was over Canisius, a team that Kentucky also picked up a W over earlier this year. CSU has fallen to UT-Martin and Kent State so far in the Bluegrass Showcase, with one more game against Duquesne on Sunday.
Let’s take a look at the projected starting five for the Vikings tonight:
#3 Rob Edwards, Sophomore Guard, 6’4″
Rob Edwards is the lone full-time starter returning for the Vikings from last season. In his freshman year, Edwards started the most games for a freshman in CSU history. He earned Horizon League All-Freshman Team status with his 12.4 points and 1.2 steals per game to go along with shooting almost 40% from 3-point range.
This year, the sophomore is back and even better than his first season. Through three games this season, Edwards is putting up a team leading 17 points, as well as 2.7 rebounds per game while shooting 44.4% from deep.
While Edwards’ shooting has been his calling card in his career at Cleveland State, he will face a considerably tougher test than he has ever faced with the likes of Malik Monk, Isaiah Briscoe, and De’Aaron Fox guarding him throughout the game. I think the big thing for Edwards will be not turning the ball over and staying out of foul trouble. Edwards has both 11 fouls and 11 turnovers through only three games.
#20 Bobby Word, Junior Guard, 6’4″
Bobby Word is the first of a few newcomers to the starting lineup for the Vikings this season. He sat out last season after transferring from Oral Roberts, where he averaged 8.4 points per game and led the team in three point shots made.
It would seem that the year of practice in Coach Waters’ system has proven beneficial to Word. So far this season he is averaging 15 points, 4 rebounds, and a steal to go with his 41% clip from downtown. He is the team’s second leading scorer. The Vikings rely heavily on their two guards for offensive firepower.
Like mentioned above for Rob Edwards, UK’s trio of starting guards is going to be a lot to handle for most teams this season, and Cleveland State is no different. If Wood can limit his turnovers against the strong defensive pressure of the Wildcat backcourt, then he may be able to find some room to get clean shots off and get hot from the field.
#12 Kasheem Thomas, Freshman Guard, 6’0″
Kasheem Thomas is the second of four new starters this year for Coach Waters. Coming across the border from Canada, Thomas is a freshman who scored 18.4 points and dished out 4.9 assists for his high school team, while shooting 44% from the 3-point line.
Thomas is the floor general for the Vikings in just his first season. He’s putting up a solid 7.7 points, a team leading 6.3 assists, and 4.3 rebounds per game in the few games CSU has played so far. He runs the offense and finds the two other scoring guards in open space. Thomas is also the Vikings’ third starter shooting over 40% from 3, with a 45.5% rate.
On the defensive side of the ball, I think Thomas may get a little overwhelmed by the offensive attack from UK’s guards. He will be undersized against most likely the three best guards he has ever faced in his young career. I look for Briscoe and Fox to have big nights against the young guard.
#5 Jibri Blount, Sophomore Forward, 6’7″
The tallest starter for the Vikings, Jibri Blount stands at just 6’7″ and 220 pounds. He started only 5 of the 29 games he played in last season as a true freshman for CSU. Before that, he played his high school ball at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio aka “The House that LeBron Built”.
Last season, Blount averaged just 5.7 points and 3.1 rebounds, but those numbers should definitely increase through this season in a starting position now. Currently, Blount leads the team in rebounding, pulling down 5.7 per game, to go along with 8.3 points.
The big issue for Blount, especially against the extremely oversized front court of Kentucky, will be staying out of foul trouble. Blount has had his playing time cut short in 2 of the 3 games this season due to early foul trouble. In the lone game where he committed zero fouls, the Vikings were able to pick up the W.
#0 Derek Sloan, Junior Forward, 6’6″
Derek Sloan has only started 5 games over the past two seasons for Cleveland State, but will surpass that number this season alone through six games. Sloan has earned a starting spot for a young Vikings’ squad, despite not having big numbers last season.
He averaged 1.3 points and 1.2 rebounds last season in a reserve role, but this season those numbers have jumped so far. He is now scoring 7.3 points and pulling down 4.3 rebounds per game, including scoring double digits the past two games.
Sloan will be matched up with either Bam Adebayo or the combination of Wenyen Gabriel and Derek Willis in tonight’s game. Either of those match-ups should be an advantage for the Wildcats, as the 6’6″ junior will be vastly shorter than most of the guys Coach Cal will rotate into the front court.
The Kentucky Wildcats and the Cleveland State Vikings have met twice before tonight, both times in the John Calipari era at UK. Both times, the Wildcats came away with the victory, but the games could not have been more different.
The first time, John Wall and the Wildcats took on Norris Cole on the Vikings on a warped court due to the heat and the moisture in the banquet hall turned basketball arena. I remember watching the Cats cruise to victory as ESPN showed groups of fans in buffet lines just off the court.
Fast forward a few years, Julius Randle and the Harrison Twins are struggling to stay with Cleveland State in Rupp Arena. The Vikings were led by Trey Lewis who would transfer to Louisville after the season and Bryn Forbes who would transfer to Michigan State after the season. It wasn’t until a late second half surge that the Wildcats took the lead for good to get the victory. I watched this one from just off the floor in Rupp and I honestly thought that the team that started the year saying they’d go 40-0, was going to drop one of the early gimme games.
Tonight we see the third installment of Kentucky vs Cleveland State. Let’s see if the overmatched Vikings can stay with the extremely athletic Wildcats.
Go Cats. Beat Vikings.