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Vikings Stuck in Shadow of Cleveland's Pro Sports

By Ray Danner
On January 31, 2011

More than two-thirds of the way through their season, the most competitive sports team in Cleveland is still so anonymous in their own town that their best player is more likely to be mistaken for an extra in the Spike Lee joint "Do The Right Thing" than as the best player in a Division I men's basketball league.

Pick up the Plain Dealer sports section and you see more stories about how the Cavaliers actually tried last night than you see stories about Cleveland State's slow growth into a perennial division contender over the past few seasons. Why is that?

Cleveland is a pro sports town. I get that. Always has been and always will be. This town is one of just 15 U.S. cities with the three major sports: baseball, basketball and football. We are Browns town, home of the Miracle at Richfield. We have a very long, if sometimes tragic, love affair with the Cleveland Indians.

But why doesn't Cleveland love college sports? Well, we do, in a way. Ohio State Buckeyes gear is all over town.

Clevelanders don their scarlet and grey jerseys in November when the Buckeyes schedule their annual bulldozing of that team from up north. It's not only during football season that you see OSU hats and t-shirts. We support Columbus year round, regardless of how the teams are doing.

But I looked it up. According to Google Maps, you have to drive exactly 143 miles from Cleveland Browns Stadium at 100 Alfred Lerner Way to 411 Woody Hayes Drive, where the Buckeyes play in Ohio Stadium, better known as "The Horseshoe". Did you know that we're actually closer to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh? Does knowing that make you a little nauseous?

But it's ok! Cleveland fans have adopted the Buckeyes because it's all part of O-H-I-O. They are the state's largest school. They WIN! How glorious it is to root for a winner from time to time. The city of Cleveland proper hasn't won a major sports championship since the Browns' NFL title in 1964. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that streak will stretch into 2012.

But joking aside, Clevelanders love their sports. The reasons equal the number of fans within the greater Cleveland area. We don't always show up during the long stretches of ineptitude, but we support our winners furiously. For the record, that's called voting with your butt, not being on a band wagon; there's a big difference.

I have a feeling that the Cleveland State men's basketball program is going to be big, but maybe not this season. It takes a few years to prove you're not an aberration. Two years ago, the Vikings had one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history when they bounced no. 4 Wake Forest in the first round. Last season, they scheduled a tough regular season, including nationally ranked Kentucky, Kansas State, West Virginia and Ohio State. It was a setback year that still exemplified who this team views as their peers.

This season promises to be more like a launching pad to continued success. They lead the Horizon League with only a handful of games remaining and are currently ranked fourth in ESPN.com's Mid-Major Power Rankings. Next year's recruiting class already has some highly ranked talent coming in as freshman. Another successful run into the NCAA Tournament will only help to raise their national profile and convince other athletes to consider Cleveland State.

Coach Waters is doing his part to develop a quality program. The fans in and around Cleveland should consider how they want to fit in next. Tickets at the Wolstein center are as cheap as $10 a piece and are free for students. That's a pretty good value in any economy.

When Butler comes to town this Saturday, Feb. 5, the game will be televised at noon on ESPN. A national audience will be tuning in to see the team that narrowly fell to Duke in the national championship game last season. They'll wonder how Butler has progressed in a tough season after the loss of some of last year's key players.

Then, they'll see frenzied fans with their blackout t-shirts. Some may wonder if this is the same Cleveland State University from 1986. At that time, they were the first no. 14 seed to make the sweet sixteen before losing, by just one point, to future NBA Hall of Famer, David Robinson's, Navy Midshipmen.

They'll see the unusual three-guard lineup and the smothering defense. They'll see the growth of this program. They'll have no choice but to see the flat top. They'll see a city coming together over a new team, and rooting as one for the team with CLEVELAND stamped across their chests.


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