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After Five Straight Losing Seasons, Cleveland State Basketball Is 'Winning by Committee'

Cleveland State Men's Basketball has been led by Dennis Gates, who has quickly turned around the program.
Cleveland State Athletics
Cleveland State Athletics
Cleveland State Men's Basketball is led by Dennis Gates, who has quickly turned around the program.

The Cleveland State University men’s basketball team is drawing national attention for its turnaround season. The Vikings are 12-5 and in first place in the Horizon League. The last time they had a winning season was 2014-15.

WKSU sports commentator Terry Pluto says head coach Dennis Gates has found a recipe for success.

A turnaround
Cleveland State University has had a long-standing history of winning in the Horizon League. In 1986, the team made a run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, becoming the first #14 seed to do so.

Later, under head coach Gary Waters, the Vikings had six postseason berths, including reaching the second round of the 2009 NCAA tournament.

Waters retired after 11 years in 2017, following two back-to-back losing seasons. Then came two more years of decline under his successor, Dennis Felton.

"The whole thing just cratered [and] they just kept losing 20 games. The team GPA, which had always been very strong with Gary Waters, had plummeted to barely above 2.0," Pluto said.

Felton was fired in July of 2019, and new athletic director Scott Garrett ended up hiring Dennis Gates, who had spent eight seasons on the coaching staff at Florida State.

"They surprised the whole Horizon League. Nobody saw this coming at all."
Terry Pluto

A new strategy to building a team
Gates' first season with CSU last year ended with a record of 11-17, but Pluto said Gates believed he could turn it around. His key strategy was to recruit junior college players who were overlooked.

"When you think of junior college players, [you think] they've got something wrong with them. There are either academic problems or attitude problems, or they're not very good to begin with athletically," Pluto said.

But Pluto said Gates saw something different in many of those players. "Their grades were good; they're good kids. They were looking for a place to play," he said.

Gates was known for recruiting solid players at Florida State, helping to lead the Seminoles to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 in the 2018-19 season. The year before that they went to the Elite 8.

Winning by committee
Pluto says since Gates arrived, the team GPA went from around a 2.2 to above 3.0, with six players recently placing on the Dean's List.

Gates also implemented a strategy called "winning by committee," in which he continuously rotates players in and out of the game.

"The idea being if you get a bunch of these hardworking guys, [you] get them to work together and keep the energy level up, [that] you'll overachieve," Pluto said. He said it's also a way to wear down your opponent.

But Pluto says it often can be difficult to get a bunch of young players to cooperate.

"A lot of coaches come up with this stuff. But [you have to get] kids to buy in and you have to recruit the right type of kids."

CSU is in first place in the Horizon League as of Tuesday, Feb. 2.
CSU is in first place in the Horizon League as of Tuesday, Feb. 2.

Back on the map
Cleveland State plays in the Horizon League and not the Mid-American Conference with fellow Division I schools Kent State University and the University of Akron because CSU doesn't play football.

Currently, CSU is in first place in the league, just ahead of Wright State. The two teams will face off Feb. 15 and 16. The winner of the conference gets an automatic bid to March Madness.

"They surprised the whole Horizon League. Nobody saw this coming at all," Pluto said.

Pluto said it's exciting to have Kent State (10-4), Akron (10-4), and Cleveland State (12-5) all competitive at the same time. He hopes that they will all play each other in independent games next year if the schools can return to normal schedules amid the pandemic.

"In the meantime, it's fun to see Cleveland State get back to being relevant again," he said.

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Sean Fitzgerald is an announcer/board operator at Ideastream Public Media.