Physical Cleveland State outtoughs Vandy

Seeking respect, Cleveland State’s Jeremy Montgomery aggressively challenged his younger foe. He bumped him and shoved him.

His opponent pushed back, and a scuffle nearly ensued in the recent exchange.

Montgomery said he never intended to fight teammate Charles Lee, a freshman guard. But CSU’s grinding practices tend to get emotional, he said.

“I hit him with an elbow. He pushed me back and we got into it,” Montgomery said after his team’s 71-58 upset over No. 7 Vanderbilt in Nashville on Sunday. “Those type of things get you ready for the game.”

Fouls are rarely called in Cleveland State’s practices. Head coach Gary Waters encourages his players to tussle with one another, so they’re prepared for in-game contact.

That philosophy fuels the brash brand of basketball that shocked Vanderbilt in the biggest upset of the season’s opening stanza.

The Vikings walked into Memorial Gym and punched the Commodores in the mouth, something they’ve been doing to one another all week in practice.

“What happens is people don’t realize, until they get with us, the intensity and the tenacity,” Waters said.

Shaken by Cleveland State’s defensive pressure, Vanderbilt -- saddled with the highest expectations in school history -- produced more turnovers (20) than field goals (18). The Dores, the SEC’s second-best 3-point shooting team a season ago, went 4-for-17 from beyond the arc.

“I felt that they were kind of out of sync, like [a win] was just going to come to them,” Montgomery said.

This wasn’t a we-miss-Festus-Ezeli-problem. Vanderbilt was simply and unacceptably outplayed on its home floor by a squad that was picked to finish third in the Horizon League preseason poll.

Ezeli’s return from a knee injury in the coming months certainly will boost the program, but his absence can’t be an excuse for what happened Sunday.

Give Cleveland State credit for a huge win. But it's also OK to question Vanderbilt.

The team entered the season amid a smattering of Final Four projections. Everyone is back. Vanderbilt has a roster full of seniors in a climate dominated by players who couldn’t vote in the last presidential election.

But Cleveland State’s pace and physicality overwhelmed the equally seasoned Commodores.

The Vikings’ experience proved pivotal. The four seniors on their roster competed with poise on the road against a top-10 opponent. And their doggedness, gleaned from a coach who demands it, turned the contest.

Waters grew up in Detroit, where he learned the game on the city’s playgrounds in the 1960s. Fouls were foreign on the Motor City’s blacktops, he said.

The sixth-year coach employs the same concept in practice. Before Sunday’s game, one of Waters’ players jokingly asked: “Are there going to be officials, Coach?”

“We allow everything, even knocking guys against the wall," Water said. "Our guys literally feel like the game is easier. We get at each other so hard. So when you get hit in the game, it doesn’t affect you.”

Cleveland State was an afterthought in preseason conversations about the Horizon League, most of which centered on Detroit and Butler.

Well, Butler lost to Evansville on Saturday. And there are serious questions about Detroit’s post presence with Eli Holman’s indefinite time away from the team.

Enter the Vikings. Last season’s Horizon League tri-champs (they split the conference title with UW Milwaukee and Butler) lost Norris Cole, a first-round pick in this past summer’s NBA draft. But Sunday was proof that they still possess serious talent. D’Aundray Brown, who redshirted last season because of a hand injury, scored a game-high 18 points.

Asked if he felt his program has been overlooked, Waters reeled off some of its accomplishments. The Vikings have averaged nearly 23 wins in the past four seasons, including 27 victories last season -- a tally that hadn’t been achieved by the program in 25 years.

“No one ever paid us any attention,” he said.

No need to worry about that anymore.