By Owen Kaelble | @OwenKaelble
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — The two-time Horizon League Coach of the Year, Dennis Gates, is taking the Cleveland State Vikings back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 12 years after a resounding victory over the Oakland Golden Grizzlies, 80-69.
Gates, who is only in his second year as the head coach for the Vikings, has won Horizon League Coach of the Year honors for two straight seasons, sharing the award last season.
In his first season as coach in 2019, Gates faced a big challenge as the Vikings were picked to finish last in the conference and the team was undergoing a roster rebuild. The Vikings finished with an overall record of 11-21 and 7-11 in conference play, the highest conference win total since the 2014-2015 season and entered the Horizon League Tournament as a No. 7 seed.
This season, Gates oversaw a Vikings squad that dominated the conference with a 17-4 record in the league and a 19-7 record overall. CSU prided itself on its defense all season long, allowing only 70.6 points per game. Leading that defense is junior Tre Gomillion, who was named as the conference Defensive Player of the Year.
The Vikings are also well-rounded offensively, with two players, junior D’Moi Hodge and Gomillion averaging 10.3 points per game, second on the team. Torrey Patton, a senior guard and leading point scorer for the team with a 14.6-point average, was named an All-League First Team member and Horizon League tournament Most Valuable Player.
Just two seasons ago, the Vikings had finished their fourth straight year with a losing record and were in search of a new coach. Now, Cleveland State is headed to the NCAA tournament.
“Being able to finish this game, the way that we won it, the way that we planned is great,” said Gates.
Oakland coach Greg Kampe, in his 37th year, had high praise for Gates and his team.
“They have a cohesive group that play their tails off,” said Kampe. “They get all the loose balls, they’re physical and they believe in themselves. They’re capable of doing some special things. They’re well coached, they play their hearts out, and they got physicality.”
The road for Gates to Cleveland State was a long one. He played for four seasons for the California Golden Bears, followed by one year as a grad assistant at Marquette, two seasons as assistant coach for California, two seasons as assistant coach for Northern Illinois, two seasons as assistant head coach for Nevada, eight seasons as assistant head coach at Florida State, and then was named head coach for the Vikings in 2019.
The path to the tournament for the Vikings was not always an easy one. They overcame the Mastodons from Purdue Fort Wayne in the first game of the Horizon League Tournament in a three-overtime 108-104 victory, and then squeaked by Milwaukee with a slam dunk by Gomillion in the final minute to advance to the final.
The defense played a big role in the win over the Golden Grizzlies, as Oakland struggled all night to find anything in the paint and had to rely on perimeter shots to keep the game close. Gomillion had a productive night, earning a double-double with 16 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and three steals. Patton continued his tournament resume with a 23-point night, with 10 rebounds and four assists.
With all that Gates has accomplished in his two seasons, there’s still nothing that compares to the feeling of clinching a ticket to March Madness.
“There’s nothing like cutting down a net and holding up a trophy,” he said.