This summer, Last Word on Basketball looks to profile college basketball teams and their journey through a season played during a pandemic. Our previous installment took a look at Loyola from the Patriot League. You can also check out prior installments, starting with Norfolk State. The next program in our series is Cleveland State basketball. Dennis Gates just wrapped up his second season leading the Vikings, and he’s gotten off to a fast start at the school.
Gates was named the Horizon League Coach of the Year in year one. This came after winning seven league games, the most in five years. Then, this past season, Gates and his group blew the doors off their pre-season expectations. Picked to finish seventh, the Vikings ended up going 19-8 overall and 16-4 in league play. They captured both the regular-season and conference tournament title, sending Cleveland State to their third NCAA Tournament appearance in program history. I had the chance to talk to Gates about how his group took the Horizon League by storm in the middle of a pandemic.
The Story of the 2020-21 Cleveland State Basketball Program
Embracing the Uncertainty
Getting ready for the 2020-21 season was no easy task for any program. Uncertainty was the name of the game as schools tried to figure out how to press forward in all aspects, including athletics.
“We all had to remain optimistic because we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” Gates said. “It was just making sure we were locked in, in preparation with our campus leaders, president, and athletic director on the same page. We had to adjust a lot of things in order for us to get to a point where we could compete at the highest level.”
Cleveland State tipped off one week after the official start of play for all of Division I. The Vikings played three in-state opponents in Toledo, Ohio, and Ohio State in a shortened non-conference schedule. They started 0-3, but only lost by six to the Buckeyes after a historic loss in their prior game against Ohio. The results may not have been what Gates wanted, but he knew the long-term goals for his squad.
“It allowed my team to galvanize with each other,” stated Gates. “The staff-player relationship allowed us to get to know who our guys were with each other and in competition. I think a different identity comes out during those moments, and we have to understand who kids are when things are thrown their way.”
Coach Gates and his staff soon found out just what kind of guys he had.
Running the Horizon League
Cleveland State basketball was set to play new league member Robert Morris for their first league series. However, COVID protocols canceled that series just three days before the scheduled dates. In a quick turnaround, the Horizon League pivoted and set the Vikings up to play Purdue-Fort Wayne instead. Gates knew the league was prepared to be flexible all season.
“That was something we knew could be a possibility,” he said. “Our conference commissioner, Julie Roe Lach, did a great job of preparing our head coaches…to be on the same page of things that could be thrown our way.”
The Horizon League went to back-to-back games, mostly played on Fridays and Saturdays. Gates kept his team focused on what they do to get through that challenge.
“Our biggest opponent is ourselves, and we talk about that all the time,” stated Coach. “We don’t focus on who we play or the jersey. We focus on how well we can do and what we can do. I think ultimately being able to compete against yourself and give your very best is what we focused on, and that allowed us to stay in the moment.”
The Vikings finished 16-4 in the league, including 3-1 against league stalwarts Northern Kentucky and Wright State. However, Gates praised the league as a whole, mentioning that every game is a dogfight with the quality of coaches and players in it. Furthermore, it was not lost on him about fortunate they were to get all 20 games played.
“We were fortunate enough to be able to play all our conference games,” Gates said. “I’m more thankful for that while not compromising the health and safety of our student-athletes. I’m excited and proud of that as well.”
Finishing the Job
Cleveland State entered the conference tournament as the top seed. The Vikings were tested right away, needing three overtimes to beat Purdue-Fort Wayne 108-104. That was the fifth meeting between the teams, a product only of a pandemic season. After that, Cleveland State earned hard-fought victories over Milwaukee and Oakland, capturing the conference tournament title. The Vikings had doubled-down on their regular-season title.
“It’s one of those things I share, not just with my players, but with the parents of the program for trusting Cleveland State University campus leadership,” Gates said. “Our program’s parents trusted us with their children in the middle of a pandemic. [They] knew we would do our due diligence in keeping them safe from any harm and danger, and do it the right way.”
Coach Gates also understood how much it meant to those who follow the team from beyond campus.
“It belongs to our fans, our alumni, who all went through something,” he added. “Whether they lost a job, lost family members, friends, or loved ones to COVID. They could still follow and support, and that period of time allowed them to get away for a moment and relax and celebrate something else.”
The Vikings earned a 15-seed in March Madness, falling to eventual Final Four participant Houston 87-56.
“I truly believe we ran into a number one seed,” Gates said. “I truly believe they could’ve won a national championship if that first-round matchup was different. On the flip side, our guys are not, by any means, complacent with just getting to the tournament. We’re going to continue to get better as a program and build on that.”
Reflecting on Cleveland State Basketball
Though the Vikings ended their season with a loss, there’s plenty to be excited about with the program. Gates learned how much his team is willing to fight this past season, and continues to learn about them.
“I learn each and every day, not only about them, but myself,” he stated. “They continue to challenge us as a staff. Because they are so competitive, we have to make sure we give them all that they need to feel supported and feel successful.”
As for Gates himself, he is thankful for the support he continues to receive as he works to become better at his own craft.
“As the CEO of this program, there’s not a day that doesn’t go by where I don’t try to learn professionally,” Gates said. “Try to pick the minds of my mentors and my peers, and make sure I’m doing everything I can to give my very best. I’m very thankful to have those people by my side and helping.”
It’s clear that the program is in very good hands with how quick the turnaround has been under Gates. The Vikings are here to stay as a contending team in the Horizon League.
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