Pedigree: The Association of Mid-Continent Universities, or AMCU-8; F.L. (Frosty) Ferzacca, commissioner.
Style: Run and stun. Funk and dunk. Frequent flyer substitutions.
Philosophy (as expressed from the bench): "Get intense, Mouse!"
Be serious. Was this really happening? Were celebrated Indiana and distinguished St. Joe's being embarrassed by Iceberg Slim and Vinnie Vandalism and the IFO and the Mouse? Were the early stages of the NCAA tournament being devoured by a self-described "short, fat Irish pug and 10 short, black stallions?" Was Cinderella actually from kuh...kuh...kuh...Cleveland?
Hey, why not? Hey, there are different ways to play the game. "Hey," as Cleveland State coach Kevin Mackey would—and did more than several times a minute—say last week in the East Regional early rounds at Syracuse: Hey, there are no upsets this time of year and Hey, these wins were for the good guys and Hey, we attack and come at you and Hey, we're the off-Broadway guys finally come to prime time and Hey, we're quicker and deeper and hungrier and Hey, this is a system that, Hey, I devised in a nightmare and Hey, throw it up, let's get it on and Hey, best win? Hey, the best win is next week and Hey, my guys see the big names and lick their chops and Hey, we're all tweeners and leftovers and never wants but, Hey, the thing is, Hey, nobody can guard us.
At least nobody so far. As the Vikings—alas, what a stolid handle for such a wildly outrageous crew—roared past the Hoosiers 83-79 and the Hawks 75-69, it was difficult to believe that a team from a school once known as Fenn College, a team that used to play the likes of Thiel, Hiram, Cedarville, Heidelberg and Edinboro (not the cities) and Marian (not the librarian), was on its way to play Navy at the New Jersey Meadowlands.
Now Cleveland State is a rollicking 29-3 in Division I, a threat for the NCAA title and chock-full of fun characters, including a pair of stars soon to be known as the east-wood Clints—Clinton Smith, a former schoolboy summer-camp hero in Pennsylvania, and Clinton Ransey, who is possessed of log-solid legs and torso and a glorious one-on-one repertoire. Go ahead, challenge them and make Cleveland's year.
Mackey, the coach, 39, turns out to be the same potato-faced street guy from Somerville, Mass. who, as a Boston College assistant, used to roam the mean streets finding all those blazing, skit-skat overachievers for the Eagles. Once in Cleveland, the Mistake by the Lake, and at State, the Cadav of Euclid Ave., Mackey widened his scope. He is the man who claims responsibility for bringing Manute Bol out of the Sudan bush—only to find he lacked a birth certificate, not to mention academic credentials for Division I. "Over there I think they measure age by moons and planets," Mackey says. "Where would we be with Manute? On probation."
The Vikes have transferred in from not only Ohio State and Alabama but also Arizona Central Junior College and the North Dakota State School of Science, not to mention Prince Edward Island College in Canada, that crazed hoops haven where Fast Eddie Bryant, the starting lead guard, was about to matriculate when Mackey discovered him.
Then there is another Cleveland State recruiting lodestone: the RKO Art Greenwich, a movie house on 12th Street in Greenwich Village. That's where New Yorker Ken (the Mouse) McFadden, a 20-year-old, 6'1" freshman who scored 23 points against St. Joe's on Sunday, spent the better part of his high school years, working as an usher rather than going to class. Then he moved to Cleveland and pursued the house-painting business—"when the weather was nice," the Mouse remembers—and passed his high school equivalency exam. Now he is a dean's list student in communications.
No matter where they came from, Mackey's manic runners and jumpers wafted through the early tournament rounds like a breath of fresh air. For the last few seasons, Cleveland had been merely a rumor in the college basketball underground. CSU's 21 victories last season did not earn it a bid from either the NCAA or NIT. But this winter when the Vikings whipped DePaul by 15 in Chicago, piled up 180 points in losses at Ohio State and Michigan and finished second and sixth among all Division I teams in scoring and rebounding margin, respectively, they could not be denied. "We've been eating our hearts out to get this shot," says Mackey.
Pressing, platooning, sometimes four men at a time, acting aggressively on every rebound, the helter-skelter Vikings resembled less an NCAA forgotten stepchild than some confident hockey team. "Our pressure is insidious. If we're really moving right, it's like there's seven of us out there," says Mackey.
From the outset Cleveland State acted as if it owned its part of the draw. "Go easy on us, big guy," Mackey cracked to Indiana coach Bob Knight at the pre-game handshake. Said Ransey afterward, "There was chaos out there. Bobby must have never seen a press like ours." Bobby?
Somebody suggested the Vikings were just the type of fellows midwestern mothers had always warned their children to stay away from. But, hey, center Eric (the Gigolo) Mudd owns a wardrobe that Kansas coach Larry Brown, for one, would sell his house for. Reserves Bob (Iceberg Slim) Crawford, Steve (the Identified Flying Object) Corbin and co-captain Vince (Vinnie Vandalism) Richards, who lost his three-year starting job when the Mouse squeezed under the door, behaved as nicely and politely as can be. Why even Paul Stewart, a 6'6" banger, and Ray Salters, the 6'2" 220-pounder his teammates call Black Rambo—"If a man's 'bowin', Rambo's mission is assassination," said Ransey—seem pussycats off the hardwood. Salters is said to visit art galleries and Stewart to read a bit of Updike although, he confesses, "I forget the titles offhand." Rambo Run?
"Listen," said Mackey. "Coach Knight always talks about Hank I-I-I-I-Iba—I believe that's his name—and Pete Newell. But, hey, there are other ways to play basketball."
Or, as the Mouse said of Cleveland State's stunning sweep: "You think all we [Vikings? Rodents?] ever played is under-organized ball. Little did you know we also played a lot of organized. You doubters get another chance to see us play next week."
Hey, Mouse, is it true that you were named Mouse because you had a friend named Cat? "As a matter of fact, that's right," said McFadden.
"Hey, there are all kinds of great players out there who nobody knows about," said Mackey. And now—squeak, squeak—one less unknown terrific team.