By Pete Mollica
The Penguins return their top four scorers and 10 lettermen from last year.
YOUNGSTOWN — Well, nobody can accuse the Youngstown State men’s basketball team of easing into the season.
The Penguins, who were 11-19 last season under head coach Jerry Slocum, will open the season at 7:30 p.m. Friday against Xavier, the defending Atlantic-10 champions and a team that returns eight lettermen from last year’s team that posted a 27-8 record and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
“Xavier is the best basketball team we will face this year,” said Slocum, who is 41-78 entering his fifth season at YSU. “They are better than Pitt and better than Butler. It is a very tough opening assignment.”
Still, Slocum and the Penguins are excited.
“We’re still unbeaten and the expectations are high,” he said.
The Penguins return their top four scorers and top rebounder from last season and with 10 lettermen and four starters returning, Slocum has something that he hasn’t had since he’s been at YSU — experience and depth.
“This is a whole different year for us because of the experience factor,” he said. “Last year we had so many new faces that it took us forever to come together as a team.”
The Penguins have put great emphasis on the defensive end of the floor this season.
“Defense has definitely been an emphasis for us,” Slocum said. “If you are going to be successful you have to get defensive stops.”
“When I go back and look at the films of last season I keep saying that if only we had made a few more baskets we could have won, but then I also note that if we had made a few more defensive stops we still would have won those games,” he said.
Leading the returnees is senior guard Kelvin Bright, who led the team with an 11.4 point per game average, while senior guard DeAndre Mays added 10.7 points, junior Vytas Sulskis 10.3 and senior Sirlester Martin 9.6. Martin also led the Penguins in rebounding and was second in the Horizon League with 7.3 rebounds per game.
Plus, Slocum has plenty of help off the bench this year.
Senior Dallas Blocker, a 6-9 forward and 6-6 junior Tom Parks will join Bright, Mays and Martin in the starting lineup, while Sulskis, 6-0 junior guard Vance Cooksey, 6-3 sophomore Ashen Ward, 6-6 senior Zack Rebillot and 6-8 redshirt freshman Eddie D’Haiti are all waiting for a call off the bench.
“We’ve got a very busy month ahead of us and we are going to have to be patient and to keep our focus,” Slocum said.
Following Friday’s opener, the Penguins return home for their first game at Beeghly Center at 4:05 p.m. Sunday against Hiram.
The Penguins will also be in action next Wednesday against Kent State at Beeghly in the second game of a doubleheader at 7:35 p.m. The YSU women will play Kent State’s women in the opener at 5:15.