Second place in Penguins’ sight

Cleveland State University will visit Youngstown for Saturday’s clash at Beeghly Center, looking to avenge Youngstown State University’s Dec. 31 victory.

The Vikings (17-4, 7-2) rank first in the Horizon League with Valparaiso University, while the Penguins (11-8, 6-3) share third with Butler University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The Penguins defeated the Vikings, 73-67, on New Year’s Eve and shot 58.1 percent from the field (50 percent from beyond the 3-point line).

Head coach Jerry Slocum said in a press conference on Monday that the Vikings have defensive wrinkles to smooth.

“We, offensively, up there put it on them pretty good,” Slocum said. “I’m sure they’re going to pick up their pressure on us. They’re very, very good defensively.”

The Vikings rank first in the conference allowing 59.6 points per game, first with 8.7 steals per game and third in defensive field goal percentage (42.6).

“It’s going to be a war, point blank, period,” said YSU junior point guard Blake Allen.

“We’re going to have to compete for 40 minutes,” added Allen, who was honored as this week’s Horizon League Player of the Week. “We’re going to have to be ready for their pressure, and I’m excited. I think we’re going to be up for the task. We’re just going to approach it like every other game.”

Allen ranks first in the HL, shooting 46.3 percent from beyond the 3-point line, eighth with 13.6 points and ninth with 3.1 assists per game.

Before the win at CSU in January, the Penguins were on a four-game losing streak. They have won five of their last seven since.

The two losses were at Valparaiso and Butler before returning home last week where they defeated Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Slocum said it went from a minor setback to a major comeback.

“Proud of the way our guys bounced back, proud of how hard they played [and] proud of how good our basketball IQ was,” Slocum said.

The Penguins prepare for Saturday’s game focused more on defense than offense. They rank sixth in the conference in scoring defense (64.9 points per game) and tied fifth in defense field goal percentage (42.9 percent).

“I think the thing that’s been great about the four conference games that we’ve played at home right now is that we’ve guarded really well, and we’ve done a great job defensively,” Slocum said. “I think our defense has led to more productive offense.”

The Penguins rank third in the HL, scoring 67.2 points per game, and first in 3-point percentage (39.2).

Slocum said his team has the conference’s most unique starting five.

“We can put numerous guys on the floor, and it’s shown that that’s clearly one of our strengths,” Slocum said. “I think you play to your strengths. This group’s put in a lot of time shooting the basketball. It’s been very consistent for us.”

Slocum added that he’s looking at Saturday’s game and the HL standings. The top two teams ranked at the end of the season receive first-round byes.

“That’s where our mind is,” he said. “We’ve obviously beat them on their floor. It should be a fun night for the community. We’re excited about it.”