Bright spots in tumultuous season for men’s basketball

It was a difficult year for the Cleveland State University men’s basketball team, there’s no other way to put it.

In July, the university fired head coach Dennis Felton after two seasons for a variety of reasons. Cleveland State had gone just 22-44 in the two years with Felton at the helm.

The university also fired a number of assistants along with Felton, and a bulk of Cleveland State’s roster entered the transfer portal, including leading scorer Tyree Appleby, who transferred to the University of Florida. The program was in disarray and at one point had just five players on the roster. 

The university hired Florida State University assistant coach Dennis Gates to weather the storm and become the next head coach of the Vikings, and to say the hiring paid off would be an understatement. 

Although Cleveland State’s record of 11-21 may not look all that impressive on paper, it’s an improvement on the team’s record from last season by one victory. Cleveland State won seven games in Horizon League play, its highest total in five years. Even attendance was up. 

And his job did not go unrecognized, as Gates became the second coach in Cleveland State history to win Horizon League Coach of the Year honors, joining Gary Waters, who won after the 2007-2008 season. 

Having to replace a slew of starters was no easy task, but the players took on the challenge, particularly junior forward Algevon Eichelberger, whose points per game jumped from 5.2 last season to a team-leading 14.5 this season. 

To what did he attribute his breakout campaign? First of all I would like to thank my friends, and family, Coach Gates, and the rest of the CSU coaching staff, and give all glory to God,” Eichelberger said. 

“But really it was all the hard work I put in during the offseason and preseason,” he continued. “It wasn’t easy, but it paid off in the long run. Additionally, the chances and touches I got on the court with a coach who believed in me throughout the whole season definitely helped build my game.”

Eichelberger was an efficient scorer with a field goal percentage of 46.4 percent on the year, but sees areas of his game that can use improvement, particularly from the three point line, where he shot 27.8 percent, and the free throw line, where he shot 62.4 percent.

“This offseason I am really looking to improve my three-point game, my ability to drive to the basket, and show my all-around game on the court,” he said. “This previous season I showed spurts of it but not to that extent of which I’m capable. This offseason I also think I need to show more improvement at the free throw line. I improved it exponentially this past season and I plan on getting it even better.”

Another breakout player for the Vikings this season was junior forward Torrey Patton, who suited up for Cleveland State for the first time this season after transferring from the University of Akron after the 2017-2018 campaign. He was the Vikings’ second-leading scorer at 11.7 points per game, a pleasant surprise after averaging just 3.3 points in his lone season at Akron. 

Patton said he aims to improve his ball-handling and free throw shooting in the off-season and looks forward to building on the culture that Gates and the rest of the Cleveland State coaching staff established this season. 

“There was a lot of uncertainty in the beginning of the season regarding how we would make this thing work but under a great leader like coach Gates we all trusted in his plan right away,” Patton said. “We’re looking forward to getting back to work and putting something special together for next season.”