Eli Boettger | @boettger_eli | 04/23/20
Receiving coach of the year honors after an 11-21 season tells you everything you need to know about the job Dennis Gates did at Cleveland State this past season.
Less than eight months ago, a seventh-place tie in the final Horizon League standings would have seemed laughably out of reach. Head coach Dennis Felton and his entire staff were fired in late July after going just 22-44 in two seasons, leaving the cupboard remarkably bare for newly hired Dennis Gates, a former Florida State assistant.
Over the course of the offseason, seven players opted to transfer out of the program. The main Vikings losses included 17.2-points-per-game scorer Tyree Appleby to Florida, sit-out transfer Rasheem Dunn to St. John’s, and 28-game starter Stefan Kenic to Chattanooga.
It could’ve been even worse. Jaalam Hill — the only returning scholarship player above six points per game — put his name in the transfer portal over the summer and wound up returning to the program. Had Hill left, the Vikings would have returned just 17.3 percent of its scoring from the previous season.
Enticing Hill to remain in Cleveland was Gates’ first victory, and he’s stacked plenty of wins since.
After taking over at the helm on July 26, Gates’ staff immediately went to work. Tre Gomillion (Aug. 1), Tyrese Potoma (Aug. 1), Daylen Williams (Aug. 6), Craig Beaudion (Aug. 9), Hugo Ferreira (Aug. 10) and Franklyn Penn Jr. (Aug. 11) all committed to Cleveland State within Gates’ first two weeks as head coach. The six contributors combined to average 33.5 points per game during the ’19-20 season and each of the players started at least once.
Even with all of the newcomers, preseason skepticism surrounding Cleveland State was absolutely justified. After all, the Vikings were operating under a first-year head coach who saw more than half of his scholarship guys leave over the offseason. CSU was picked last in the Horizon League preseason poll, ironically receiving a first-place tally after a voter was rumored to have mistakenly submitted a ballot in reverse order.
For the first five games of the season, Cleveland State looked the part of a last-place Horizon team. Blowout losses by 35, 20, 27 and 46 points made for a rocky start out of the gate.
The Vikings erased the nightmarish start, though, going 6-6 over the next 12 games with a win over eventual NEC champ Robert Morris and a 3-1 start to conference play. Gates had managed to lead CSU to its first three-game nonconference winning streak since ’11-12 and its first three-game conference winning streak since ’14-15. Just months ago, the program was scrambling to find enough players to field a team.
By season’s end, Cleveland State had recorded sweeps over conference foes IUPUI, Detroit and Milwaukee. The Vikings snatched the No. 7 seed in the Horizon League tournament and was bounced in the first round by Oakland, putting the final touches on what had been a respectable season given the preseason circumstances.
Cleveland State was not only tasked with a massive roster overhaul but encountered plenty of in-season challenges as well. Gomillion, Deante Johnson and Kasheem Thomas were the only Vikings who managed to appear in each of CSU’s 32 games. Beaudion missed the final eight games with a knee injury, Penn was absent for the last seven games with a high-ankle sprain, Hill wasn’t available until mid-December, and starter Torrey Patton missed six of the first nine games and took a while to get up to speed.
Even still, Cleveland State marched forward en route to its best conference record since the ’14-15 season. The league’s coach of the year choice was obvious given the season’s context, even though the selection might appear confusing on paper. Gates became just the second coach in league history to win the award after a sub-.500 season, a further testament to his staff’s accomplishments.
The future of the program looks bright as well. Gates received huge news last month that Al Eichelberger — who led the team in scoring this past season at 14.5 points per game — will return to the Vikings for ’20-21. Eichelberger could have been a hot commodity on the grad transfer market this spring.
Rejoining Eichelberger on next season’s rotation are Beaudion (10.4 ppg, 3.5 apg), Gomillion (32 starts, 8.2 ppg), Patton (24 starts, 11.7 ppg) and Johnson (20.1 mpg). According to Bart Torvik, Cleveland State ranks second in the Horizon with 79.8 percent of its ’19-20 minutes returning to campus.
As for newcomers, CSU owns the Horizon’s top-rated class led by JUCO standout guard D’Moi Hodge (25.2 ppg at State College of Florida) and three-star sniper Alec Oglesby. Mabor Majak, meanwhile, is a 7-2 center and the second-highest rated Cleveland State commit ever. Perimeter-oriented wing Jayson Woodrich, 6-8 JUCO forward Chris Greene and JUCO heavyweight Tallahassee C.C. product Yahel Hill also join the fold for the nation’s 81st-ranked incoming class on Rivals.
Gates’ team will be battle-tested and then some this fall. The Vikings are already set to take on Bowling Green, Duke, Kentucky, Nebraska, Robert Morris and Toledo on the road as well as the Paradise Jam tournament in the U.S. Virgin Islands that features Bradley, Buffalo, Colorado State and St. Bonaventure.
After a messy situation last summer, there’s plenty of optimism within the Cleveland State program. Dennis Gates and his staff have this ship steered in the right direction.
Eli Boettger is a college basketball writer and founder of HeatCheckCBB.com. He has previously worked for Sporting News, DAZN and USA TODAY SMG.
Boettger’s content has been featured by Bleacher Report, NBC Sports, FiveThirtyEight, Yahoo Sports, Athletic Director University, Washington Post, Illinois Law Review and Notre Dame Law Review, among other publications. Boettger is also a current USBWA member and Rockin’ 25 voter.