CLEVELAND – It's "Hoopy Hour" at Cleveland State, and as a handful of fans play Cornhole, while downing $2 draft beers overlooking the court, one of the nation's remaining unbeaten teams is doing layups as Eminem's "Not Afraid" echoes through the nearly empty arena.
"Not Afraid?" Well, after two hours and a 32-point win, this unheralded, unselfish squad was "Not Defeated" either.
Led by star senior guard Norris Cole, the 11-0 Cleveland State Vikings are loaded with experience, depth and all kinds of confidence. On the cusp of cracking the AP's Top 25 poll, Cleveland State may be good enough to follow fellow Horizon League member, Butler, by making a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
"There's a chance," said the clutch Cole, averaging 21.5 points per game. "I'm not going to look too far ahead. But if we keep working hard, who knows what can happen."
Gary Waters knows. Now in his fifth season as coach after resigning at Rutgers, Waters, Cleveland State's perpetually positive coach, has five starters and nine letter winners back from a 16-17 team that played a vicious non-conference schedule last season. One year after beating out Butler for the Horizon crown and then stunning Wake Forest in the NCAA tournament, the Vikings took their lumps.
Now, they're giving a few back.
"When we defend," Waters said, "we can play with anybody."
You see? LeBron James didn't deflate all the basketballs in this proud city before going south, after all.
Already this season, Cleveland State has defeated Akron, Kent State, St. Bonaventure, Iona and Robert Morris, an NCAA tournament team the last two seasons. Last weekend, the Vikings took their annual in-league road trip to Wisconsin, and beat both UW Green Bay and UW Milwaukee, teams they had beaten once in 20 tries.
The Vikings, who enter this weekend's game at Sam Houston State (5-2) ranked No. 16 in the RPI, visit West Virginia (6-2) next week with a chance to avenge last year's final-second loss.
Waters, a veteran who has been to the postseason eight times with Kent State, Rutgers and Cleveland State, has seen plenty, and isn't surprised by his team's fast start.
"Our goal was to go into West Virginia 12-0," Waters said. "Our guys really made a commitment this summer. They didn't enjoy the summer. I'm not saying it was bad for them, but they made a commitment to get better. They didn't just go in and work on their shots and lift. They conditioned — and did it themselves. Their goal was to win a championship. If it happens, it's something they deserve."
That work ethic was evident before this week's blowout of West Virginia Tech, though it was witnessed before just a small gathering of 2,011 fans.
As workers prepared the arena, the 6-foot-2 Cole was on the floor working on his jumper, crossover dribble and 3-pointer. He has the complete package, averaging 4.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists. He shoots 85 percent from the line. And he's been at his best down the stretch, making 42 of 44 free throws in the final five minutes.
"Norris, in my estimation, is the best guard in the Midwest," Waters said. "His floor game is starting to catch up with his abilities. It's taken him two years to identify what he has to do as a point guard, and now it's coming easy to him."
Everything's simple for the Vikings, but only because of effort.
"We've worked hard and coach has worked hard to get this program where it is," said Cole, whose haircut resembles a high-top fade from the 1980s. "And it's great to see how it's paid off."
Cole, and juniors Jeremy Montgomery and Trevon Harmon form a trio of shooters and end-to-end defenders that highlight the Vikings' three-guard offense. Their one weakness is rebounding, but Waters expects that to improve once senior forward D'Aundray Brown returns following finger surgery.
Waters also anticipates Cleveland fans to warm up to his team. With the Cavaliers falling from NBA contention after losing James, Cleveland State has a chance to capture this city's hungry-for-a-title fans. This has never been much of a college town, and CSU, which is trying to shed its commuter-school image, has long struggled to attract fans despite playing in a 13,000-seat area worthy of a big-time program.
It has a long way to go in that regard, clearly. The student section was more of a student row against West Virginia Tech.
"People have been disappointed by our crowds, but I understand it," Waters said. "In November and December, you are not going to get great crowds. It's football season. If we can continue to do what we do, when time comes around, we'll have some people here."
The school is doing all it can to promote the Vikings. Compared to the NBA, tickets and concession items are cheap and there's a growing interest on a campus that's undergoing a major makeover with new student and recreation centers, as well as dormitories.
Butler's magnificent run to the NCAA title game shook college hoops unlike anything in years. In previous tourneys, a first-round upset by a low seed was usually followed by a second-round drubbing. Butler, though, kept going and gave mid-level programs a renewed belief that anything is possible.
"What they did, uplifted us all," said Waters, who built Kent State into a mid-major power before struggling with the Scarlet Knights in the Big East. "It gave us hope. It gave us recognition. People started realizing, that 'Hey, mid-level can play this game at the highest level.' What Butler did was take them all head on: Michigan State, Kansas State and all of them and beat 'em. That sent a message."
Waters has noticed something else about his team, a chemistry and closeness he experienced before with his best squads. These Vikings are united.
"They like each other," Waters said. "We have a training table, and they'll stay there an hour afterward just talking. At Rutgers, I couldn't get guys to stay together for five minutes. They legitimately care about each other, and when you get that, you got a chance."