Penguins start league with Wisconsin games
By Joe Scalzo
The Accuweather.com forecast today for Milwaukee is “frigid with snow showers.” High temperature: 16 degrees.
And that’s 5 degrees higher than what you’d face in Green Bay.
For the fifth straight year, the Youngstown State men’s basketball team will start Horizon League play on the road — and the Penguins will do it against the league’s coldest teams.
Hottest teams, too.
Today’s opponent, Milwaukee, is off to a surprising 10-4 start after being picked to finish last in the Horizon League preseason poll. Preseason favorite Green Bay, meanwhile, is 9-3, giving Wisconsin the league’s two top teams.
“Obviously, the Wisconsin teams are better than anybody in the league right now,” said Penguins coach Jerry Slocum, whose team will play the Phoenix on Saturday, then UIC on Tuesday. “We know the way to the [NCAA] postseason in this conference is to win it [the tournament]. How do you do that? You take care of business at home and somewhere out there, you’ve got to snake two or three conference wins.
“We’ve got our work cut out now being on the road for seven straight days,” Slocum said.
YSU (9-6) leads the league in scoring at 82 points per game but has struggled defensively, giving up 72.9 per game, which ranks seventh out of nine teams.
Senior guard Kendrick Perry, the preseason player of the year, has been terrific, scoring 20.8 per game (second best in the league) with 2.9 steals (tops in the Horizon) and 4.5 assists (fourth best) .
“YSU’s offensive numbers are the best they’ve been under Jerry,” said Bill Potter, the Horizon League’s communications director. “And really, when you’ve got a kid like Kendrick running things and a kid like Bobby [Hain] down low, it’s not terribly surprising that those numbers are so good.
“I’m sure, defensively, they’d like to see some improvement but anytime you’ve got a player like Kendrick Perry, you have to account for him, offensively and defensively. He can change games by himself,” Potter said.
Potter has watched as much Horizon League basketball as anyone outside of the league’s coaches so far this season. When asked how much, he laughed and said, “a healthy amount,” and said this season has been fascinating.
“The league continues to rank in the top 12 in the country in RPI and most national rankings, and I would say you could make the case that in some places it has underperformed and in other places it has shown that it’s pretty darn competitive,” Potter said. “I don’t know if any coaches are completely happy with where they are coming out of nonconference play, at least in terms of records, but they’ve learned a lot about their teams.
“I think the next few months are going to be pretty crazy.”
Green Bay narrowly edged out Wright State for first place in the preseason poll (390 points to 389) but while the Phoenix have played well, the Raiders (8-7) have struggled a bit because of injuries to standout Cole Darling and others.
“And I think they’re learning to play with a target on their backs,” Potter said. “They were picked at the top of the conference, and I think people probably look at them a little different in pregame scouting reports.”
Potter said Valparaiso (8-7) has been a pleasant surprise and he is intrigued by the potential of Cleveland State (8-6), which has a lot of young players but also has a lot of talent.
“They’re starting to figure out how to win games, which is one of the toughest things to do,” he said of CSU. “If they can figure it out, they’re gonna be interesting.”
YSU, meanwhile, enters league play coming off its best game of the year, an 85-59 throttling of South Dakota last weekend. The Penguins have one of the best starting lineups in the league, but will need consistent production from their bench, especially junior forward Shawn Amiker (the Horizon League’s reigning player of the week) and freshman point guard Marcus Keene.
“Obviously, this is a tough way to start the year, but it’s not a bad way to start the year,” Slocum said of the three road games. “You can come out with your confidence still intact ... because after our first week of the conference year, we only have [five] league games left on the road.
“We’ve got to keep our heads high and keep on fighting, no matter what’s coming on these road trips because obviously it’s a challenge,” Slocum added.