Saturday March 21st, 2009

MIAMI -- It was the kind of block that ends games long before the clock strikes zero. It began with a slap of palm on leather. It continued with a scream.

Six-foot-10 Wake Forest forward David Williams opened wide and unleashed a noise so guttural that it seemed to come from the mouth of hell itself. It ended with a thud. The ball sailed past the shooter, Cleveland State guard Cedric Jackson, thunked off the floor and flew into the scorer's table.

With about 13 minutes remaining Friday, fourth-seeded Wake had sliced Cleveland State's lead to five from 17. The block, combined with the circumstances, should have crushed the upset hopes of the 13th-seeded Vikings. But instead of wilting, Jackson scanned the defense. He made eye contact with guard Norris Cole, who waited to inbound the ball. Jackson nodded. Then he took off. Cole lobbed the ball from the left wing over the rim. Jackson streaked down the right baseline, leaped and slammed the ball home.

Jackson had delivered a message. You're bigger. We're tougher.

After that, Cleveland State cruised to an 84-69 win (RECAP | BOX SCORE) with relative ease. The Vikings did right by sweet-shooting guard Mouse McFadden and former coach Kevin Mackey, who led the 1986 Cleveland State team past Bobby Knight's Indiana Hoosiers, past St. Joseph's and into the Sweet 16. In 2009, No. 12 seed Arizona stands between the Vikings and the Sweet 16. Can the Wildcats possibly be tough enough?

At Cleveland State, they don't call fouls at practice. Coach Gary Waters, who led Kent State to a first-round upset of Indiana in 2001 before he left for five miserable years at Rutgers, installed that rule when he arrived in Cleveland in 2006.

"Every practice," guard Trevon Harmon said, "I'm bleeding somewhere."

During rebounding drills, boundary lines do not exist. If the ball bounces into the stands, go get it -- even if you have to crawl over the bodies of your teammates.

"We almost lost a guy the other day," Waters said, recounting the tale of freshman guard Josh McCoy, who crashed over a railing this week chasing a carom.

When two opposing players grapple for the ball, no one races in to call a jump ball. "We let 'em wrestle for it," said Waters, who added that matches can last as long as 30 seconds.

Assistant Jayson Gee enforces the no-fouls policy. He tolerates no whining. No crying. No moaning. This is how the Vikings went from 10-18 in 2005-06 to the third-most lopsided win by a No. 13 seed.

"Coach Gee will tell you to rub some dirt on it," forward J'Nathan Bullock said.

Bullock has heard those words before. The 6-foot-5, 240-pounder played every skill position on offense and linebacker on defense at Northern High in Flint, Mich. He said he received interest from Notre Dame and much of the Big Ten, where football coaches saw him as a rush end. In fact, after Cleveland State fired Waters' predecessor, Mike Garland, Bullock considered transferring schools -- and sports.

Waters convinced him to stay. "He can be very persuasive," said Bullock, who scored 21 points and grabbed six rebounds Friday against a Wake frontline that went 6-9 (Al-Farouq Aminu), 6-9 (James Johnson) and 6-11 (Tony Woods).

At Cleveland State, the little guys are tough, too. Jackson, the 6-3 St. John's transfer, fought his way to 19 points and seven rebounds Friday. Cole set the tone during Monday's practice, when, before coaches could hand out assignments, he volunteered to guard high-scoring guard Jeff Teague. Teague scored 10 on Friday. Cole scored 22.

When Cole volunteered, Waters smiled that gap-toothed smile. Then he unleashed the Vikings for another round of rugby on the practice court. Gee made sure nobody cried, until the Demon Deacons did on Friday.

"When you really make toughness and intensity part of your battle repertoire," Gee said, "sooner or later, somebody's going to give in."

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