Penguins expecting tough test in NIT opener vs. Oklahoma State

Staff file photo / Greg Macafee Youngstown State guard Bryce McBride goes up for a layup in traffic during the Penguins’ 87-58 win over Milwaukee on Feb. 16 at the Beeghly Center. The Penguins will host Oklahoma State in the opening round of the NIT tonight at 7 p.m.

YOUNGSTOWN — It’s a tall task, to be sure, but also a massive opportunity.

Making its NIT debut, Youngstown State (24-9) ordinarily would have been sent on the road to face a Power 5 team. It would’ve been the case this year, too, as the Penguins went unseeded and drew the top seed in the NIT field, Oklahoma State (18-15).

However, a scheduling conflict at OSU meant the Cowboys couldn’t host the game. Instead, Oklahoma State will pay the Beeghly Center a visit tonight (7 p.m., ESPN+, 570 AM WKBN) as the Penguins and Pokes battle for the first time.

There is some precedence to the situation, as Kentucky visited Robert Morris back in 2013 due to similar conflicts, a game in which the Colonials pulled a stunning 59-57 upset. It also isn’t OSU’s first trip to a Horizon League school this season. The Cowboys throttled Oakland in the O’Rena on Nov. 13, 91-62.

“A chance to play a Power 5 team is not real likely in the future, if ever, on your home court,” YSU coach Jerrod Calhoun said. “Probably a one-shot deal, but we’re certainly excited about it.”

But, Calhoun points out, the Cowboys ride into Youngstown with a tough defense and will present plenty of challenges for the Penguins.

As a team, OSU is giving up just 66.1 points per game, the second-best mark in the Big 12, which is the top conference in college basketball this season. The Cowboys have held teams to a 39.8 percent mark from the field, the best figure in the Big 12.

“They’re one of the best defensive teams in the best league in America. … They’re big, they’re physical, they’re tough — they’re a great team. It’ll be the best team we’ve played all year,” Calhoun said.

“They pressure the ball and they play in the passing lanes. They communicate really well, and that’s something you have to do in the Big 12 because that’s probably the best defensive league in the country,” YSU guard Bryce McBride added.

Of particular concern is the Cowboys’ length. Forwards Kalib Boone and Moussa Cisse stand at 6-9 and 7-1, respectively, while guard Bryce Thompson checks in at 6-6. As such, OSU grabs a Big 12-best 36.8 rebounds per game. The Pokes also block nearly five shots per game.

In terms of leaders, Thompson scores 11.7 points per game, while Boone scores 11.2 and adds 5.2 rebounds. Cisse scores 6.5 points and snags eight rebounds per contest.

Calhoun says he spoke with WVU coach Bob Huggins and Oakland coach Greg Kampe about the matchup, as well as a host of other Big 12 coaches about the matchup, in addition to plenty of film study.

“The biggest thing is go get a rebound, both coaches said,” Calhoun noted.

Oklahoma State will enter with a couple of notable injuries, however. Guard Avery Anderson III, who averaged 11.1 points per game in 22 contests, is not expected to play, while Chris Harris Jr. also won’t suit up due to a torn ACL.

On YSU’s front, Malek Green, who exited the Penguins’ Horizon League semifinal matchup against Northern Kentucky with a lower leg injury, is expected to play, according to Calhoun.

The winner of tonight’s contest will take on the winner of 4-seed Washington State and unseeded Eastern Washington.

“The motivation is to continue to prove that we’re winners,” McBride said. “For me specifically, I’ve never played in March before. My seasons always ended at the end of February, so just to continue to play the game of basketball and at times like this, let scouts, let players and other guys at the next level see that these guys are winners and this is a winning program. It’s always a motivation just to play the game that you love.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.85/week.

Subscribe Today