By Joe Scalzo
At the end of practice Friday, YSU junior guard Devonte Maymon and assistant coach Brian DePaoli took turns shooting from half court.
Finally, after more than a half-dozen tries, Maymon buried one.
Call it a long shot from one of the long shots.
Maymon and the Penguins will play arguably the biggest game of their season tonight when they face Cleveland State at Beeghly Center.
The Vikings (15-3, 4-2) enter with the best overall record among Horizon League teams — and are just one loss behind the leaders in the conference standings — while Youngstown State (7-9, 1-5) has lost five straight conference games.
On paper, it’s a mismatch.
On the court? That’s another story.
Two years ago, the Penguins hosted a supposedly superior Cleveland State team and led from start to finish en route to a 64-60 victory in front of more than 6,000 fans and an ESPNU national TV audience.
“That was probably as fun a basketball night as Youngstown has had in a very, very long time,” Jerry Slocum said. “We’re looking forward to them being here again.”
CSU is arguably YSU’s biggest conference rival — although that distinction seems to be due to geography more than anything else — and while the Vikings have won six of the last seven meetings in men’s basketball, they own just a 37-36 lead in the all-time series, which dates back to 1930 when CSU was called Fenn College.
“It’s a fun game because there’s obviously kind of a built-in rivalry in terms of distance,” Slocum said. “The last four or five times we’ve played them, we’ve played very well.
“Except for one time.”
That one time came on Jan. 2, 2010, when Cleveland State rolled to a 70-48 victory. This year’s Viking team is better than that one.
Led by senior guard Norris Cole, who is averaging 21 points per game, the Vikings rolled to a 15-1 start before dropping road games to Butler and Valparaiso last weekend.
“They were having a spectacular year until this last week,” Slocum said. “I’m sure they’ll be fired up and focused.”
YSU, meanwhile, has played better in its last two outings, taking Butler to the brink on Sunday before drubbing NAIA-member Wilberforce on Tuesday. Slocum is happy with his team’s performance in the last two games, but to get past CSU, he needs senior Vytas Sulskis to get back on track.
After looking like an all-conference player through the first 11 games, Sulskis has struggled in the past five, shooting just 32 percent from the field while averaging just 7.2 points per game over that span.
“I don’t care what sport it is, you’re going to go through a stretch where you struggle a bit,” Slocum said. “That’s where Vytas is right now and good players find their way out of it and hopefully it will pass in this game.”