CLEVELAND -- Despite getting knocked out in the semifinals of the Horizon League Tournament with a five-point loss to Wright State University, the Cleveland State men's basketball team earned an invitation to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament and will play the Ohio Bobcats in the first round tonight.
Although they were knocked out of the Mid-American Conference Tournament with a quarterfinals loss to the Akron Zips, the Bobcats (23-11) are not to be taken lightly, according to Gary Waters, coach of the Vikings (21-11).
"It's going to be a tough one because they're a pretty good team, and they're pretty good at home," Waters said. "They've got size and they're athletic, and they've got guards that can shoot, so you've got some good things with that program.
"We're really looking forward to it because we're a young team and they need to be in some sort of tournament play because they're preparing themselves for next year. I think that's the whole purpose of going to these things. It's getting their mindset ready for what they need to do in the future."
While they are going into a hostile environment at Ohio University, playing on the road is something the Vikings became very good at down the stretch of the regular season.
In the thick of a race for the Horizon League championship, Cleveland State lost just one road game in the months of January and February, and that came at the eventual champion, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, on Jan. 2.
After that loss to Green Bay, the Vikings won at Youngstown State, Illinois-Chicago, Eastern Illinois, Detroit, Oakland and Wright State.
"There were some very tough games that we had to pull out in the last moments," Waters said. "In the early part of the season, those were games that we were losing. As time went on, we started learning how to execute and play in the last minute of games so we could pull those tight ones out.
"I thought that was key, and the biggest key was, we learned when you play on the road, as soon as you get to the game, you have to be ready. You've got to land the first punch because if you don't, you're going to get punched out of the gym."
According to Waters, the Vikings learned to play on the road about the same time they developed an inside-outside game with forward Anton Grady and guard Charlie Lee, as well as bench production on both sides of the floor from senior forward Jon Harris.
"Without (Grady), we are a different team," Waters said. "He created some things inside for us. The one who had a very good season and started playing well down the stretch for us was our point guard, Charlie Lee. He had some really strong games. He has been more assertive, and that's been the key. This is a young man that can shoot the ball extremely well, but you can't do it if you don't shoot it. That's what we had to do, get him to be more aggressive.
"In my estimation, we had a balanced attack. When we had everyone flowing, especially on the offensive end, we were pretty hard to beat. The one who I thought was a part of that whole equation was Jon Harris. He ended up being the Sixth Man of the Year in our conference because he blocked shots, rebounded the basketball and did a lot of positive things for our team."
And it is the balanced attack that Waters wants to see against Ohio tonight.
"I thought we had great development," Waters said. "When we first started, we were trying to find out who could be the starters out there on the floor and jell together. By the end of it, we were playing good, solid defense.
"We always scored the basketball, but we were starting to play more together as a team, and that's why we lost only one game in the months of January and February on the road."