CLEVELAND (AP) -Three years ago, Gary Waters sat in New Jersey watching West Virginia and Wake Forest exchange baskets in an NCAA tournament overtime thriller when he heard something he couldn't believe.
The game was in Cleveland. Cleveland? Ohio?
Can't be, Waters thought.
Overflow, enthusiastic crowd. Looks to good to be Cleveland.
``Then the announcer said, 'We're in the beautiful Wolstein Center on the Cleveland State campus,''' said Waters, who was coaching Rutgers at the time. ``And the first thing I said was, 'Cleveland State's got an arena that looks like that?' I thought, 'Oh man, they got something pretty special there.'''
And, thanks to Waters, it's getting more special.
In just his second season at Cleveland State, Waters, who transformed Kent State into a mid-major power and had Rutgers on the upswing before being fired, has brought life back to a hapless program.
Cleveland State, which lost 25 games in 2004, has had just three winning seasons since 1992-93 and frequently played in front of crowds consisting of mostly friends and family inside its gorgeous 13,000-seat arena, leads the Horizon League at 7-0.
Last week, the Vikings, who made their only NCAA tourney appearance in 1986, upset then-No. 12 Butler to snap a 19-game losing streak against ranked teams. The 56-52 victory touched off a court-storming celebration by students who haven't always been willing to admit that they attended the urban campus.
``Never thought I'd see the day when these seats were filled,'' junior forward J'Nathan Bullock, the Vikings' top player, said in a quiet moment before practice this week. ``I was here in '05 and '06 and, man, it was rough. There's definitely a different vibe around here now.''
It's been a long time.
The Vikings haven't been ranked in the AP's Top 25 since the 1986-87 preseason, which came a few months after the school's remarkable NCAA run under then-coach Kevin Mackey. Cleveland State knocked off Indiana - its only previous win over a ranked school in 27 tries - and beat Saint Joseph's before losing by one point in a regional final to a Navy team led by All-American center David Robinson.
The seasons since have been defined by losses, lots of them, an empty home arena and a general inferiority complex that extended beyond the school's athletic department.
But the win over Butler, followed by an impressive one against Valparaiso two days later, has Cleveland State bouncing again.
``It feels like college basketball here now,'' said junior center Chris Moore, a local kid who began his career at UC-Santa Barbara before transferring to Cleveland State. ``It's got an atmosphere and buzz to it. It's great to see a student section at our games that is actually respectable.''
Respect was only one of the 56-year-old Waters' goals when he took on the biggest challenge of his coaching career in 2006. The Vikings had gone 23-60 in three seasons under Mike Garland, who replaced Rollie Massimino after seven not-so-impressive seasons.
There wasn't much in place to work with, and Waters knew it.
His first order of business was to change a losing culture, which had poisoned players into feeling worthless and hopeless. He demanded excellence - even perfection - from his players on the court and off.
``The image was you couldn't have success here,'' said Waters, who went 79-75 at Rutgers. ``My goal was to change that image, and that usually takes three years.''
The Vikings went 10-21 in Waters' first season and won just three conference games. But an early win this season over Florida State got things rolling, and Cleveland State, with 10 new players from last year, is off to its best start since 1992-93.
Waters admits he never expected things to change so quickly.
``Did I think we'd have success this year?'' he said. ``I thought we'd win some games. I didn't know that we'd be 7-0 in the conference right now. That caught me by surprise.''
The Vikings received one vote in this week's AP poll, and their RPI of 51 is higher than seven ACC, Big East and Big Ten schools. Waters still isn't sure how good his team is, but he'll soon have a better idea as Cleveland State begins a four-game road swing on Thursday at Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Waters credits Bullock, a powerful 6-foot-5 former high school football star from Flint, Mich., with accelerating the turnaround. While other players were scared off by Waters' demands, Bullock, after initially resisting change, decided to stay and has developed into a leader.
``We battled a little bit last year,'' said Bullock. ``I didn't all the way commit to him and he just stayed after me and stayed believing in me. For him to do that told me I should believe in him. I do.''
He isn't the only one, either.

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