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Opportunity knocks

Penguins add two formidable road challenges to schedule

Correspondent file photo / Robert Hayes Youngstown State’s Michael Akuchie (31) and his teammates have December games scheduled at VCU and West Virginia

Coach Jerrod Calhoun wants his team to have the best opportunities heading into year four with the Youngstown State University men’s basketball program.

The Penguins, coming off an 18-15 season, have solidified two tests in the 11-game non-conference slate — at Virginia Commonwealth (Richmond, Va.) on Dec. 5 and at West Virginia on Dec. 22.

“What you’re trying to do in the non-league is to get your guys to play in some atmospheres that will create great opportunities in the Horizon League for us,” Calhoun said. “We want to challenge ourselves with the competition. I think the environment at VCU will be something that will be tremendous. We played in a lot of big-time arenas. This one will be more hostile with fans because they have an unbelievable fan base, very similar to West Virginia. Basketball is a huge deal for VCU and West Virginia.

“I think both games create some great opportunities for our guys. It will be a great test on the road that’s going to help us come conference play.”

Calhoun said the Penguins will get $85,000 for the VCU game. This is the Penguins first matchup against the Rams. Since there was a two-for-one deal with WVU, there was no payday for playing the Mountaineers in the finale of a three game series.

YSU is looking for another money game this season against another high-major team, but with the COVID-19 outbreak it’s been tough to solidify that contest.

“What’s happened with this coronavirus is everything has been put on hold,” Calhoun said. “We’ve had a few high major teams tell us we can make $85,000, but if there’s no fans, then they’re only going to cover our travel costs. We’ve got to find a team that’s going to pay us regardless of whether there’s fans or not. There’s a lot of challenges going on with our schedule to wrap this thing up.

“In year four, you want to give your guys the best chance in the non-conference to be able to go into conference play with some unbelievable momentum, as in year four we feel we’ve got a shot to win the Horizon League,” Calhoun said.

The WVU game at Morgantown, W.Va., will be the second time in three years YSU has played in the WVU Coliseum. The Penguins had a two-for-one deal with the Mountaineers with WVU hosting twice in three years and last year’s contest at the Covelli Centre in Youngstown.

YSU lost the first game against the Mountaineers on Dec. 1, 2018, 106-72. The Penguins led by three at halftime of the Dec. 21, 2019, game in Youngstown before WVU rallied for a 75-64 win.

YSU has the tall task of taking on former Warren G. Harding standout Derek Culver (6-feet-10) and former Sharon (Pa.) Kennedy Catholic standout Oscar Tshiebwe (6-9) once again this season. Tshiebwe declared for the NBA Draft, but has rescinded that declaration — coming back to WVU next season.

Calhoun, who previously served as director of basketball operations and assistant coach for the Mountaineers, said the three-game series has been profitable basketball-wise for the Penguins. Calhoun’s connection with current WVU coach Bob Huggins was instrumental in making the series happen.

“I think that series has been really good to us because it’s tested us from a physicality standpoint,” Calhoun said. “They’re so big, so strong. Last year, our guys were tremendous in that aspect. It gave us a chance to win that game. That’s really what springboarded our confidence. After that game our guys felt they could play with anybody in the country. That was a great series, and we’re excited about wrapping it up this year.”

With Purdue-Fort Wayne entering the Horizon League this fall, YSU has 20 league games in the 2020-21 season. That gives the Penguins 11 non-conference games.

Calhoun said YSU has six home games and five on the road before heading out to league play. Three of those home contests will be in a four-team event at the Beeghly Center.

It will be the first non-conference tournament in Youngstown since Dec. 13-14, 1991, when in the YSU Holiday Classic the Penguins hosted Buffalo and Western Illinois. YSU has hosted tournaments before in the 1950s, ’70s and ’80s.

“That will be three straight days of basketball in Youngstown,” Calhoun said. “I think that’s going to be something that our guys have never had the ability to do, is to play three straight home games on three consecutive days. We wanted to be able to do that for this group because they’ve played all over the country. They’ve made a lot of money for our university.

“I think in year four we’re still going to be able to accomplish that, but we’re going to have a real chance to have some momentum to be able to host a tournament.”

On Dec. 2, YSU is at Robert Morris. With the uncertainty about future schedules, staying close to campus is more of a priority than in years past. Getting another Division I team in decent driving distance would be preferred.

The Penguins are close to announcing the remainder of their schedule.

“This might be a year where we play an extra non-Division I because the first thing we want to do is make sure our guys are safe,” Calhoun said. “Playing another non-Division I in the Beeghly Center accomplishes that — less travel, guys are staying in their beds.

“If there’s fans, which we’re hopefully anticipating, it gives our fans another chance to see our guys play. There’s a lot of teams around the country in this boat, weighing their options. We’re down to the final game or two. We’re in a little bit different boat than some.”

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