Team preview: Cleveland State

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

Virtually the first words out of Gary Waters' mouth at his introductory press conference last April were to honor God. Which was an appropriate lead-in to the Biblical parable he used to put his hiring at Cleveland State in perspective. Waters described himself as the Prodigal Son returning to Ohio.

Yeah, Waters grew up in Michigan. But returning to Northeast Ohio and the mid-major level is really coming home after four years in the wilderness of New Jersey, coaching at Rutgers in the Big East Conference.

"You know," Waters said, "the Prodigal Son went away and when he came back, they welcomed him with open hands and arms and they were really committed to what he was doing. That's the way I feel about coming back here to Northeast Ohio."

Waters, 51, replaces Mike Garland, who was forced out after only three seasons with a ledger of 23-60. Waters made a name for himself at nearby Kent State, building that Mid-American Conference school to a mid-major power during his stay from 1996-2001. Even though Waters was hardly a bust at Rutgers (79-74, three NIT appearances) it wasn't a great fit, and he welcomes the return to mid-majordom -- and to a campus and administration that are excited to have him on board.

Resurrecting Cleveland State from a prolonged slump won't be an overnight job, but Waters predictably sees great potential. Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Detroit, Butler and Illinois-Chicago have proved that a Horizon League program can build a consistent winner and carve out a niche in a Midwestern metropolitan area. So why not Cleveland State?
Goodman Arena in the Wolstein Center is a classy venue, yet the Vikings drew only 2,012 per home game last year to finish last in Horizon League home attendance.

Winning is the biggest attraction any program can have, and that will take time. Perhaps the second most important attribute is a local connection, and that's one front Waters is attacking with vigor. He inherited a team with only one scholarship Ohioan, guard Raheem Moss from Columbus. Waters quickly assembled a staff with Cleveland connections, then made his first signee guard Joe Davis of hometown Warrensburg Heights High School. He also has two transfers from the Cleveland area coming home who will be eligible in 2007-08.

"The uniqueness about this place and what made me immediately think about this place is that this is literally the only show in town at the collegiate level," Waters said. "Think about that. It has its own town and the town has not embraced it yet. It's time for us to have this city embrace this basketball program and have all the joys you see around the country when you watch the final days of the NCAA [Tournament] and get excited that their team can do something similar."

Step one was reaching out to the area high school coaches. Over the summer, local coaches with their players making unofficial visits to the CSU facilities was a common sight. One day Waters threw a barbeque party and gave a power-point presentation of his vision. "I'll tell you," he said, "a lot of 'em bought into it."

Waters previously recruited the area for Kent State. Now that he's back, he sees a promising cycle of good young players in the making.

But that won't help him in this season. The Vikings went 5-11 last winter in league play, following 6-10 the previous season and an 0-16 disaster 2003-04, Garland's first year after inheriting the program from Rollie Massimino.

Several players left the program after Garland's ouster, notably center Ije Nwankwo (11.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg). So the good news is that four starters return. The bad news is there's not much in the way of a post depth.