Published October 13, 2011http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd">
The men's basketball home page at YSUsports.com features a highlight video that leads with the Penguins' 62-60 win over Butler on Feb. 3.
This, famously, was Butler's last loss until the NCAA championship game, which brought a lot of positive publicity to a YSU program in dire need of some. YSU fans pointed to that win as proof that the program was close to being respectable, usually adding something like, "Two of YSU's last six regular season losses were in overtime and another was by four points."
And I'd usually think two things:
1. It's fewer, not less.
2. Give me a break.
YSU finished 2-16 in the Horizon League last year, and those two wins were both by two points. The Penguins followed up the first win with a 30-point loss to Loyola (LOYOLA!) at home (HOME!) on Jan. 1. True, they came within a tip-in at the buzzer of ruining Milwaukee's league title hopes in the regular season finale, but they also went 0-14 on the road.
So when people said they were a few points away from being a six- or seven-win team, I'd counter that they were also four points away from being a zero-win team.
This, as you might imagine, didn't make me real popular.
But they say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, and I felt like no one was willing to admit there was a problem.
Consequently, I wrote this:http://www.vindy.com/news/2011/mar/02/like-it-or-not-slocum-will-return
That made me less popular.
I mention all that not to bury the program but because I think YSU has a chance to be good this season and I don't want people to think it's just October optimism or the writings of a hopeless homer.
If I thought YSU was going to be bad, I'd say so.
At today's basketball media day session, Penguins coach Jerry Slocum said he felt like this year's team has a chance to be in the top third of the Horizon League. I think that's a little too optimistic, but I see no reason why the Penguins can't finish .500 or better for the first time since joining the league in 2001-02.
They've only come close once, going 7-9 in 2006-07.
I voted YSU sixth in the Horizon League preseason poll, but I think they could finish as high as fourth. (My top three were Butler, Cleveland State and Detroit.) I put junior forward Damian Eargle on my first team all-league preseason ballot. I gave sophomore guard Kendrick Perry a second-team vote.
I think the conference is as wide open as it's been in years and YSU finally has a core group of players that can consistently compete in the Horizon League. And not just this year.
Two years ago, YSU returned every starter from a team that went 7-11 in the Horizon the year before. Expectations were high. Instead, the Penguins finished 2-16, five players graduated and five more left the team.
That forced Slocum to start over and, a year later, he finally has the type of team that can contend this year and in the future. His two best players, Eargle and Perry, will both be back next year and Butler's success the past two years has allowed him to recruit the type of players he needs to compete with the more estabilshed (and vastly better-funded) programs in this conference.
Slocum is in the last year of his contract but he's in line for an extension, provided this year's team doesn't implode like the one two years ago. He's learned the hard way where and who to recruit ("If we're recruiting a kid from Ohio and we're competing with two or three MAC schools, we just move on, because we're not going to get that kid," he said) and it looks like he'll no longer need to stack the team with junior college players just to compete.
Slocum isn't always the most fun to coach to deal with, but there's no doubting his basketball mind. The losses aren't coming from being out-coached, just out-recruited.
I think Slocum has the second-hardest job among YSU's coaches. (Volleyball coach Krista Burrows' job is harder. At least Slocum can sell recruits on playing in the same league as Butler.) I also think YSU's athletic program fits in the Horizon League about as well as a 5-year-old fits into his father's dress shirt, but until a better option comes along, YSU will have to make the best of it.
In men's basketball, YSU might finally have a team that can do that.