Cleveland, Ohio — The Cleveland State University men’s basketball team concluded its 2017-18 season Tuesday when it fell to Wright State University in the Horizon League championship.
The team’s lowly season came to an unexpected, yet exciting head last weekend when the team rattled off three victories over Youngstown State University, Northern Kentucky University and Oakland University to advance to the championship game. The team was one win away from competing in the NCAA Tournament.
Coming into this season, the Vikings, under new Head Coach Dennis Felton, had low expectations. The team featured six seniors, but only two — Bobby Word and Kenny Carpenter — had significant playing experience at the Division I level. Because of the lack of experience and new coaching regime, most believed CSU would finish towards the bottom of the league.
The prediction was accurate, as the Vikings finished earning the eighth seed in the Motor City Madness tournament.
1. Kenny Carpenter gets his moment and shines
Right out of the gate this season, Carpenter showed that he was going to be a force on the floor.
In the team’s home opener against Coppin State, Carpenter dropped 24 points in the first half. It was many fan’s first look at this team, and Carpenter gave them something to come back for.
He continued his high level of play throughout the season, and averaged 13.3 point per game.
But what really stood out about Carpenter was what he did off the court. Felton often referred to Carpenter as a “three-a-day guy,” alluding to the fact that Carpenter often was in the gym three times a day. Felton also often pointed out Carpenter’s leadership.
For those who often attended games, they could see that when the team got down, it was often Carpenter who would rally the troops.
The team is losing a few key contributors to graduation this year, but none will be harder to replace than Carpenter.
2. Tyree Appley arrives and makes a name for himself in the Horizon League
Coming into this season, most CSU fans probably didn’t know who Tyree Appleby was. But they learned fast.
Appleby, a freshman, scored 13 points in the team’s season opener against Akron. A month later, Appleby was in the starting lineup and running the team’s offense.
Appleby provided a second scoring threat next to Carpenter, and averaged 11.8 points and four assists per game. His slashing ability and elusiveness added another layer to a CSU offense that typically thrived on shooting the ball.
In mid-February against UIC, Appleby led the Vikings to victory over the would-be three-seed by dropping 25 points and picking up nine assists.
Appleby earned all-Freshman honors for his efforts, and solidified himself as the piece to build around for the future of the program.
3. Stefan Kenic does exactly what he needed to
The other half of the electric freshman duo, Stefan Kenic, may not have put up the numbers that Appleby did, but he did what he needed to this season, and that was improve.
A guard by trade, Kenic not only had to adapt to playing the post, but also had to learn a new style of basketball after playing his entire life in Serbia.
Without the luxury of a full summer with the team, Kenic had to learn on the fly. Standing at 6’9″ and a trim 220 pounds, Kenic had to learn how to play physically under the basket. It was not always a smooth transition, but as the season wore on, a difference was evident.
Late in the season, Felton praised Kenic for his improvement and said that a full summer with the strength and conditioning staff will do wonders for the freshman.
4. The positionless style of basketball worked for this team
Felton brought an entirely new style of basketball. Felton has said that he does not believe in set positions, but rather opts for players who can play all over the floor.
The system was never going to be flawless due to the fact that the majority of players on the team were not recruited by Felton, and were not used to playing this style. But it actually suited the team well.
Having forwards like Kenic, Anthony Wright and Jamarcus Hairston who could shoot are what made it work. The three bigs were able to move all over the floor and shoot from beyond the arc when needed.
What will be even more exciting is when Felton’s newest recruiting class arrives. Many of Felton’s recruits are versatile players who can move positions. Deante Johnson, a forward coming out Detroit Edison next season, is a good example of the athletic forwards Felton is recruiting for his system.
Felton’s offense is built for guys like Carpenter and Wright; tall guys who can move like guards. The wings and forwards coming onto the team next year resemble their style of play. They will be the key to the Vikings rebuilding process.
5. The magical run that finally captivated the city
Last weekend was simply amazing for CSU basketball faithfuls. For those who have stuck around over the past couple of years and hung with the team throughout the 20-plus loss seasons, the payoff was great.
As the eight-seed in the Horizon League tournament, CSU was not expected to make it far. The first round matchup with YSU was a tossup, but CSU came away with a win to move on and face their sure-doom, first seeded NKU.
In what tuned into an offensive slugfest, the Vikings outlasted NKU, 89-80 to stun the league. CSU, which struggled with scoring droughts all season, overcame that obstacle at the best possible time.
To continue to the Cindarella story, the Vikings ousted fourth seeded Oakland in a defensive battle by a score of 44-43. Led by the trio of Carpenter, Appleby and Wright, the Vikings did just enough to earn its first Horizon League championship bid since 2009.
Unfortunately, the Vikings fell in the finals to Wright State, 74-57, ending what was one of the most unexpected runs in the nation.
Overall, Felton’s first season as head coach went about as expect record-wise. The team is very much rebuilding, but because of the rise of Appleby and Kenic, coupled with the deep run in the Horizon League tournament, there is certainly much to be excited for in the future.
Photo by Michael Pace