Cleveland St. lost Norris Cole, but hasn’t lost a step this year

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INDIANAPOLIS – The Horizon League has been the preeminent mid-major conference over the past two seasons.

With all due respect to the things that the Missouri Valley, the WCC and the CAA have accomplished, they can’t count Butler has a member of their league. All the Bulldogs have done is go to back-to-back national title games. No big deal.

What made their second trip to the title game all the more impressive isn’t that they made the run as an eight seed; cinderella stories are a dime-a-dozen in the NCAA Tournament, and given the Madness of March in 2011, Brad Stevens didn’t even half to pull an upset in the Final Four for the right to take on UConn on the best Monday night of the season.

No, what made that trip incredible is that they were able to do it despite losing a first round NBA Draft pick in Gordon Hayward. Horizon League teams aren’t supposed to have players that get guaranteed contracts in the NBA, let alone have enough talent on the roster to remain relevant after that kind of personnel loss.

It looks like Butler gave their blueprint to Cleveland State.

After the Vikings’ 76-69 win over Butler on Friday night, Cleveland State moved to 5-1 in the Horizon League and 15-3 on the season. They already own a road win dominating road win against Vanderbilt and stole a game at home against St. Bonaventure and now they can also claim their first win at Hinkle Fieldhouse since 2005.

Should I mention this is all happening despite the fact that Gary Waters’ team lost Norris Cole, who is currently averaging 9.8 ppg in 22.2 mpg for the Miami Heat, to gradtuation?

What happened?

“I knew that we had a chance this year because we had three guys that could score 1,000 points,” Waters said, referring to his perimeter attack of Jeremy Montgomery, D’Aundray Brown and Trevon Harmon. “When you got three guys on one team scoring 1,000 points you have that potential.”

All three of those guys are fourth year players — Brown is a junior but he redshirted a year because of an injury. No matter the level of competition, the value of having veteran leadership cannot be overstated. These guys have been through the battles of the Horizon League before.

“I think they understand how good they were with Norris Cole,” Butler senior guard Ronald Nored said. “When he left, they had to turn it up another level when because they don’t have him. Those guys have been making big plays even when Norris was there, even when Cedric Jackson was there, they were making big plays then and now its their time.”

Gary Waters credits Jeremy Montgomery for sparking this group. Montgomery has made a position switch this season. Spending most of his career playing off the ball, the man known as J-Mo has slid over to full time point guard this season.

That’s a change that isn’t always easy to make. Obviously, there are some differences in the skills required for each position — shooting is more valuable at the off-guard spot, ball-handling and passing ability are needed at the point — but the difference in mindset at each spot is more important.

“He’s knows when to make decisions and when to shoot the ball,” Waters said. “That’s hard for a kid that’s played the two, but its great for the next level because they want him to be able to do both things. Norris made it because he was able to do both things. The difference between him and Norris is Norris had two years of it. He’s had only this one year. As he goes running our show and doing what we need, the better we will be.”

It certainly didn’t hurt learning from and practicing daily against a player like Cole. In fact, Cole is still helping Montgomery make the positional change.

“I talk to Norris here and there,” said J-Mo, who scored 16 of his 18 points against Butler in the second half, including a pair of tough, deep threes that helped cut Butler’s comeback attempt short. “I just get information from him. He’s a great guy, he’s humble, I love his attitude. All praise to him, I’m just getting all the information from him and taking it to the court.”

“I know I’m still a scorer, I can do a couple things here and there. But sometimes its not there. I can get everyone else involved, everyone else feeling it. And I can come in the second half and if they leave me open, I make them pay for it.”

As good as Montgomery has been filling Cole’s shoes, this has been a team effort for the Vikings. They are a deep and athletic team, one that is capable of playing devastatingly tough defense. They are second in the country at forcing turnovers defensively which stems from the depth, balance and athleticism there is up and down this roster.

For starters, the Vikings also start veterans Aaron Pogue and Tim Kamczyc in the front court. Kamczyc finished with 17 points against the Bulldogs. But its more than just the veterans, as Waters has raved about the freshmen class that he and his staff brought in this season.

“We’ve got three very good freshmen,” he said. “In my estimation they’re the best freshmen in this league. We’ve got Anton Grady, Charlie Lee and Marlon Mason. Those are three very good freshmen.”

When you have veteran leadership, youthful exuberance, a stifling defense and three scorers talented enough to score 1,000 points in their career, having success at the college level shouldn’t come as a surprise.

With or without Norris Cole.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.