Calhoun’s Penguins made progress

Penguins improve in Calhoun’s second year

By Brian Dzenis

For six games, the Youngstown State men’s basketball team was able to generate some excitement in the Mahoning Valley.

The six-game winning streak from Jan. 31 through Feb. 16 — the first such streak since the 1997-98 season — is easily the highlight of the 2018-19 season, in which the Penguins went 12-20 with an 8-10 mark in the Horizon League. It showed the team had grown up after some close losses earlier in the season and given all the young players involved in that streak, offers a better outlook for next season.

Jerrod Calhoun’s second year in charge of the team was a four-win improvement over the first year. Over the course of the offseason, all the remnants of the Jerry Slocum era had moved on, making this season feel more like a year one than a year two.

For the second straight year, Calhoun’s recruits proved to be an immediate hit, especially point guard Darius Quisenberry.

Quisenberry finished the year as the Penguins’ leading scorer with 13.8 points, a member of the all-freshman team and a second-team All-Horizon League selection. If it wasn’t for Detroit Mercy’s Antoine Davis becoming one of the nation’s leading scorers, Quisenberry is probably the League’s Freshman of the Year.

Fellow freshman Jelani Simmons was more of a late bloomer as he didn’t become a full-fledged starter until the end of non-conference play, but he shot a respectable 40 percent from 3-point range while averaging 8.1 points.

Last year’s freshman stars — guard Garrett Covington (10.7 points) and forward Naz Bohannon (7.8 points and 8.3 rebounds) — produced numbers nearly identical to the previous year. That isn’t bad as they were good enough to get Covington on the Horizon League’s all-defensive team and make Bohannon the 15th-best offensive rebounder in the nation, but more should be expected in their junior seasons.

The same can be said for the team as a whole. Those missed opportunities like the triple-overtime loss to Central Michigan and the close home losses to Oakland and Wright State need to become wins. Getting swept by 10-win teams — like Cleveland State this season — can’t happen again.

The results of non-conference play is immaterial in the grand scheme of things because the Horizon League gets just one bid to the NCAA Tournament, but it can’t be a black hole at YSU any longer.

Throughout the season, Calhoun has groused about the team’s non-conference schedule, like the lack of a home exempt tournament, for example. If the Penguins’ Horizon League peers have them, they should too.

Beeghly Center needs more home non-conference games to build some excitement heading into Horizon League play. Next season’s game against West Virginia at Covelli Centre is a step in the right direction, but more can be done.

In turn, YSU needs to be better in those games. Calhoun has just two Division I non-conference wins in two seasons.

Noe Anabir is the lone senior graduating, so bar any transfers, this exact team will be essentially unchanged. The building blocks and promise is there and this season had some growing pains, but it’s fair to expect more from the more-experienced Penguins when November rolls around.

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