YSU searching for identity in preseason
YOUNGSTOWN — The talent is there, no question. So, too, is the hype.
But what remains to be seen for Youngstown State men’s basketball, considered by many to be among those in contention for a Horizon League title, is how this year’s group of transfers, returners and lone true freshman will come together.
The Penguins took their first step toward finding that answer Monday, as preseason practices across the country got underway in college basketball.
“This time of year, (we’re) trying to install things offensively and defensively, getting them in good shape,” said head coach Jerrod Calhoun. “I thought we had a really, really good day — very competitive. I really didn’t even know who won the day. We shared the ball; we value the ball. Defensively, we’re getting better. It’s the start of a fun journey, and it’s a fun time of year.”
The Penguins are coming off of a 2021-22 season in which they finished 19-15 and won a game in The Basketball Classic (formerly the CIT). Gone from that team are forwards Jamir Thomas and Michael Akuchie, as well as guards Tevin Olison, Luke Chicone, Owen Long and Daniel Ogoro.
To replace that crop, YSU hit the portal hard. The Penguins welcomed forwards Adrian Nelson from Horizon League foe Northern Kentucky and Malek Green from Cansius, and also nabbed guards Brandon Rush (Fairleigh Dickinson) and Bryce McBride (Eastern Michigan).
Youngstown State also picked up freshman guard John Lovelace Jr. through the traditional recruiting method.
Those five newcomers join a roster that brings back All-Horizon League Third Team selection Dwayne Cohill, as well as key contributors in forwards Will Dunn and Myles Hunter, as well as guards Shemar Rathan-Mayes and Garrett Covington, who entered the portal this offseason before opting to return for a sixth year at YSU.
“I think it’s a work in progress,” Calhoun said of how the group is meshing. “Anytime you’re bringing a lot of new guys together, it takes a little bit of time. But I think there’s a sense of urgency here in our program to take that next step, and I really like the direction of this group here in the preseason.”
From Nelson’s perspective, things are going well.
“I feel like it’s really a family here,” he said. “Everyone’s genuine. It’s been really welcoming, and from the top to bottom of the roster, I can tell we have a lot of talent. So we need to stay the course and keep working hard, and I know we’re going to have a special year.”
What Nelson says he’s noticed early on is how capable of scoring the roster is from top to bottom.
“We can all score the ball real well,” he said. “I feel like everybody, every play is aggressive. We can have pretty big nights.”
For Calhoun, the excitement is actually at the other end of the court.
“I think we’re deep, certainly a really, really deep roster, and I think an older roster. They enjoy playing with each other,” Calhoun said. “But our identity has got to be on the defensive end. We got to ramp this thing up, and we have to guard at a high level. We’ve got guys that are really capable of doing it, so that’s what I’m most excited about.”
What Calhoun and Nelson both say needs to happen now is determining roles.
“Everybody pretty much finding a role and understanding what we have to do to help the team win,” Nelson said. “Because, yeah, we can all score, but at the end of the day, we have to play together and play in our roles to get those victories.”
To that end, Calhoun said the Penguins are taking a team retreat this weekend.
“We’ll do some real identity exercises and spend a lot of time with each other away from basketball,” he said. “I think ultimately, we have to stay healthy. This time of year, you have to stay healthy, and just stay the course as you build a team. We have a lot of new guys and just have to continue to get better and enjoy the process. A lot of these guys, it’s their final go-around, so really value the days and get better each day.”
YSU opens its season Nov. 7 at Canisius.