The Youngstown State University men’s basketball team sparked the community by reaching the CollegeInsider.com Tournament (CIT) last year, the school’s first postseason tournament appearance since the 1981-82 season.
Everybody on the roster loved the taste of postseason action and enjoyed every step of the way. The Penguins defeated Oakland University in the first round before falling to Canisius College in the second round.
Through all the excitement, the records broken, the game-winning shots and the fans packing the Beeghly Center, last season was only an appetizer. The main dish is a Horizon League Championship.
“I think [senior Kendrick Perry] put it well throughout the course of this fall — the CIT was nice, and it was a great community thing, but it’s not our goal,” head coach Jerry Slocum said. “He reminded this group probably about five or six times since summer time.”
If the Penguins want a shot at taking a bite from the main meal, they’ll have to do so without the program’s all-time blocks and 3-point field goals record holders in Damian Eargle and Blake Allen, respectively.
Eargle led the conference with 3.2 blocks per game and third with 6.6 rebounds per game.
“We’re not going to lead the country in blocked shots, so we better be better defensively than we’ve ever been because we don’t have a guy back there to bail us out,” Slocum said.
Sophomore Bobby Hain will be one of those guys replacing the void. Hain appeared in 33 games last year and started four times. He averaged 6.2 points and 3.4 rebounds
Hain is not as lengthy as Eargle, but he can beat opponents with his 235-lb. frame. Senior Kamren Belin said the Penguins are helping Hain become stronger and bigger.
On offense, YSU looks to overcome the absence of Allen, who holds the program’s career 3-point record with 232.
“I think there’s going to be situations offensively that we’re not going to shoot as many threes,” Slocum said. “We had a guy last year that led the league or was at least top of the league in 3-point shooting. But I think we’ve got guys that are capable of making shots.”
Although the Penguins may not shoot as many 3-pointers as last year, Belin will take advantage of every opportunity he can. Belin, a 2012-13 Horizon League All-Newcomer member, made 57 3-pointers last year.
“I told Blake that I’m going for the record, so that should be enough said right there,” Belin said laughing.
Overall, the Penguins made 245 3-pointers and averaged 7.2 per game last season. That’s 735 of the team’s 2,426 points scored overall (30.3 percent).
“We know that we can score. We’re very confident in our offensive abilities, but at the end of the day, we’re going to need to lock people down in order to win games,”
The roster features four freshmen and two sophomores, which is 42.9 percent of the team. An early non-conference schedule could help the youngsters prepare for conference play beginning on Jan. 2. The matchups include contests with the University of Pittsburgh, Kent State University and the University
“We have to grow, and how do you grow? It’s challenging your group,” Slocum said. “Those are the kind of things that grow you up. We need to throw those guys in the fire and get them battle tested, but January’s coming. If that’s not going to get us tough right off the bat, nothing’s going to.”
YSU’s first HL game is at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Jan. 2. Then the Penguins stay on the road for contests against the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the University of Illinois at Chicago before four straight home games.
Valparaiso University won the regular season crown a year ago while also reaching the NCAA Tournament. This year’s favorite is Wright State University.
“I think Wright State deserves the number one choice,” Slocum said. “I think Wright State is clearly the favorite this year. I think Green Bay is good. I would put us in there also at the top. I think Cleveland State’s got some guys back and had some transfers, but when I handed in my ballot, I picked Wright State at the No. 1 spot.”
Another challenge in the HL is facing the new team in Oakland. The Golden Grizzlies replace Loyola University Chicago. The Penguins defeated Oakland, 99-87, on March 19 in the first round of the CIT.
“I think the Horizon League is as balanced as it’s ever been,” Slocum said. “You get the last three or four years’ perennial worst team out of the league, and you bring in a team that has been to the NCAA tournament in Oakland that is very, very talented.
“I think it’s going to be a dogfight. Who plays best in February gets the chance to win it, and that’ll be our goal.”
Anything can happen from the beginning of the season to the end. The Penguins will have to slowly ease their way through the menu and make sure to choose exactly what they want, something that will make them full and put a smile across their faces.
This year’s appetizer will be participating in the conference championship game. With a Horizon League Championship will come the NCAA Tournament, or better known as March Madness. That can be the complimentary dessert.
“I think it’s going to be a tougher team than my past years here, and that just goes to our motto,” Perry said. “We started this year with a motto ‘no toughness, no championship.’ I think with myself and the 13 guys, we’re going to have a very tough attitude and a more team-defense focus.”