NCAA Tournament: Wake Forest faces Cleveland State tonight
MIAMI ó Wake Forest guard Ishmael Smith was parking his car and preparing to leave for the NCAA tournament when he received a warning from a campus cop: Don’t overlook Cleveland State.
The No. 4-seeded Demon Deacons play their opening-round game tonight against the Vikings, who are in the field for the first time since a storybook run 23 years ago. That season, they upset Indiana in the first round and reached the regional final before losing in the final seconds to Navy and David Robinson.
None of which Smith knew, until he encountered the police officer who wished Wake Forest good luck before offering a cautionary lesson in Cleveland State history.
“He said, ‘The last time they were in the tournament was 1986,”‘ Smith said. “I was like, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘And they upset Bobby Knight’s Indiana team. Don’t let it happen to you guys.”‘
Only three current Cleveland State players were alive when the Vikings became the first No. 14 seed to win a tournament game. But they’re well aware of the history.
“That’s something that’s still talked about in the city all the time,” said center Chris Moore, a Cleveland native. “It’s definitely an honor to be compared to those guys, but we’re trying to create our own legacy and step out of that shadow and be something else that’s remembered in the city of Cleveland.”
This is only the second time the Vikings have made the tournament, and again they’re considered long shots to survive the opening round.
Cleveland State (25-10) averages 66 points a game and has only one starter taller than 6-foot-5, while Wake Forest (24-6) averages 81 points and has a front line that’s 7-foot, 6-9 and 6-9.
But the Vikings have three senior starters to none for Wake Forest. They play the kind of smothering defense that can make all the difference this time of year.
And they’re on a roll, winning four games in eight days for their first Horizon League championship, which the Deacons still feel the sting of an upset loss to Maryland last week in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament.