By Joe Scalzo
The Rodney Dangerfields of the Horizon League got some respect on Tuesday.
Coming off their first winning record in more than a decade, Youngstown State’s men’s basketball team was picked fourth in the Horizon League’s preseason poll — its highest ranking since joining the league in 2001.
“I like it,” YSU coach Jerry Slocum said. “I think it speaks to the kids and the work that they’ve [done] and the growth of the program.”
Valparaiso was picked to repeat as conference champions — the Crusaders received 40 of a possible 44 first-place votes — followed by Detroit and Green Bay. YSU edged Cleveland State for the fourth spot, while Milwaukee was sixth, Loyola seventh, UIC eighth and Wright State ninth.
“Valpo returns the most and they’re clearly [the favorite], like the vote said,” said Slocum, who went 16-15 last season, including a 10-8 mark in the league. “After that I think it’s a total toss-up.”
YSU junior guard Kendrick Perry was picked to repeat as a first team all-conference selection and senior center Damian Eargle was chosen for the second team. Perry led the league in scoring (16.8 points per game), steals (2.4 per game) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.9).
“He’s a really special player,” YSU senior guard Blake Allen said of Perry. “He makes plays for himself as well as his teammates. We’ve been able to develop a rapport with each other on the floor.
“He makes everyone around him better.”
Added Slocum: I think [Perry] has the ability to be a player-of-the-year type of guard.”
Eargle, a Warren Harding High graduate, led the league in blocks with 3.7 per game last season to make the league’s all-defensive team. He also averaged 11.1 points per game and ranked third in the league in rebounds (7.5).
“He’s saved my butt a lot, to say the least,” Allen said of Eargle. “He’s been huge for us the past two years and he’ll be huge again this year.”
Allen, who led the league in 3-pointers last year, joined Slocum at the league’s media day in Chicago on Tuesday, a sign of how much respect he has in the program. With Allen, Perry and Eargle, Slocum believes he has a trio that can compensate for a young roster.
“I like our young guys,” he said. “Some of the guys like [guard] Shawn Amiker and guys that were in learning roles last year year, I’m very excited about their potential.”
Detroit guard Ray McCallum, who led the Titans to the Horizon League tournament title in March, was picked as the preseason player of the year.
Valparaiso’s Ryan Broekhoff (last year’s player of the year), Green Bay’s Alec Brown and Valparaiso’s Kevin Van Wijk rounded out the first team.
Loyola’s Ben Averkamp, Cleveland State’s Anton Grady, Green Bay’s Keifer Sykes and Detroit’s Nick Minnerath joined Eargle on the second team.