Norris Cole raises bar, game for Vikings

Norris Cole wasn't always so noticeable.

Long before the Cleveland State point guard began dominating the Horizon League and notched an eye-popping, 41-point, 20-rebound, nine-assist game two weeks ago that made him the talk of college basketball, most coaches on the recruiting trail weren't willing to extend him scholarship offers.

Before Cole started drawing attention from NBA scouts for his skills and from fans for wearing an old-school hi-top fade as a tribute to his father, there were doubts about whether he would ever even put on a Division I uniform.

But when a 47-passenger bus filled with family members makes the three-and-a-half-hour trip from Dayton, Ohio, to attend Cleveland State's senior day ceremonies on Saturday, Cole will be reminded of the people who shaped him as a competitor and saw all along his great potential.

His parents, Norris and Diane, were the ones who kept him grounded. They benched Cole for a couple of games as a child when he didn't make the honor roll and he eventually became not only a standout quarterback and four-sport athlete, but a salutatorian of his graduating class at Dunbar High.

During reunions with his athletic family, Cole's resolve was tested. The court in the driveway was his sanctuary, and when the uncles played against the cousins -- future NFL defensive end Trent Cole among them -- it was a full-on battle complete with blood and sweat, but without the tears.

"There were no foul calls and no crying," Cole said. "There was a toughness."

It's that attitude ingrained in Cole that has defined him. He leads the Horizon League in scoring (21.4 ppg), assists (5.6) and steals (2.2), displaying the offensive firepower and defensive presence that make him one of the nation's most dangerous players to handle.

Still, until the middle of his senior year at Dunbar, it appeared he would have to settle for taking his game to the NAIA Division II level, signing with Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio. Overshadowed by McDonald's All-American Daequan Cook and future CSU teammate Aaron Pogue in high school, Cole had received little Division I interest and quickly accepted the Walsh scholarship offer.

"He was just a distributor," Cleveland State coach Gary Waters said. "No one knew he was going to be that good."

His uncles and football coaches, Johnnie and L.C. Cole, were the ones who intervened, believing that he could play at the Division I level and informing him that the signed NAIA letter of intent was not binding with NCAA schools. "They said he was bigger than that," Norris Sr. said. "They were the ones that asked why he signed so soon."

Cleveland State honored his commitment with Walsh until Cole decided to open up his recruiting to Division I schools, and his coaches at Dunbar encouraged the Vikings staff to track his progress. After Waters watched Cole lead the team to a state title and win MVP honors in the tournament, the coach was sold and presented him with his only Division I scholarship offer.

Cole paid Waters back by showing up to campus on Day 1 and feeling like he belonged. He was also willing to take on any role to help the team. With future NBA player Cedric Jackson playing point guard, Cole was moved to shooting guard, where he developed the scorer's mentality easily seen in his game today.

He started as a sophomore during the 2008-09 season and was Cleveland State's second-leading scorer on the team that beat Butler in the Horizon League championship game and then knocked off No. 4-seeded Wake Forest in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Cole led the Vikings with 22 points against the Demon Deacons, limiting future first-round draft pick Jeff Teague to 10 points and throwing a memorable inbound pass from about 30 feet away for an alley-oop to Jackson.

"I let them know we were for real," Cole said.

After moving back over to point guard last season and winning all-conference honors, the speedy Cole has improved his offensive numbers across the board this season and scored in double figures in every game. He also averages 5.9 rebounds per game and guards the opposition's best player.

Cole's efforts culminated in a career night against Youngstown State that left the home phone in Dayton ringing off the hook. He joined the great Blake Griffin as the only players in the past 15 years to rack up at least 40 points and 20 rebounds in a game.

The 23-6 Vikings, who began the season 12-0, are leading the Horizon League and are only two wins away from capturing their first outright regular-season title in 18 years. It was Cole who, before the season, had inspired the entire team to stay on campus and train together rather than going home during the second session of summer school.

Coaches by rule weren't allowed to participate, so it was Cole who led the 7 a.m. workouts.

"I wanted to win a championship as an upperclassman," Cole explained. "You want to make sure everything goes right on my watch. I wanted to be a championship leader, a championship player. I wanted our program to be recognized as a championship program.

"I didn't take no slack. If you weren't ready to play, I let guys know, 'Don't step on the court.' We went 100 percent the whole time. I had to lead the charge as a senior."

Before the season, Cole decided on the hi-top fade, the standard hairstyle his father wore while Cole was growing up and going to the barbershop with him. It was his father who, upon moving to the family's house in Dayton, found a rusted hoop and fixed it up, attaching a chain net to the rim.

Waters recently learned how much that meant to Cole. The coach teaches a weekly noncredit class on success to his players, and the text they went over this season was John C. Maxwell's "Winning With People," in which one of the main principles is, "Who we are determines how we see others."

So as an exercise, Waters showed his team a simple picture with a hoop and a ball in the air and asked each player to describe what he saw. Cole offered up the memory of going to the driveway all by himself as a child, shooting just so he could listen to the rattle of the chain net after a successful shot.

"It's the best sound in the world," Cole said.

Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at diamond83@gmail.com.