YOUNGSTOWN - Afterthought. Irrelevant. Substandard.
Since the late 1980s, with the exception of a few years, these were stigmas of the Youngstown State men's basketball team.
The Penguins said on Wednesday those terms no longer apply whatsoever to this team or future ones as well.
Thanks to last year's 16-15 breakthrough season, the Penguins have changed the perception of plenty of people - especially in the Horizon League.
YSU was picked fourth in this year's preseason Horizon League rankings the highest any Penguins team has been selected prior to any season.
The Penguins had their best season in almost a decade, finishing 16-15 last year. It was the first winning season under eighth-year coach Jerry Slocum and the first for YSU since the 2000-01 season where the Penguins went 19-11.
"I think it's a direct result of a program that has longed for some respect and I think we played our way into that respect last year," said Slocum at Wednesday's YSU media day inside Beeghly Center. "What that means for this year, that's all conjecture at this point and time. The fact that we have got some respect and some nice awards in the preseason for a couple of our guys I think speaks well of where we want to go and where we want to be in our future as this year progresses."
Slocum said YSU addressed the team's needs in the offseason with the improvement of the nine returning players and five newcomers - including 6-foot-10, 235-pound freshman forward Bobby Hain; 6-7, 235 freshman forward Kamern Belin; 6-4, 195 freshman guard Ronnye Beamon; 6-4, 220 sophomore forward Larry Johnson, Jr.; and 6-6, 200-pound freshman forward Ryan Weber. Johnson is a walk-on.
"We're a little more athletic. We've addressed our need for size in our freshman class," Slocum said. "Some of our guys in our program last year that learned a lot in terms of experience.
"... I love their attitude and their work ethic. They have things we needed desperately, size. All four guys are big for their positions. They all shoot the ball extremely well. This is a new class that shoots the ball very, very well.
YSU is lead by the trio of senior forwards, Warren G. Harding graduate Damian Eargle (6-7, 225), senior guard Blake Allen (6-1, 185) and junior guard Kendrick Perry (6-0, 180).
Allen averaged almost 13 points a game. Eargle had 10.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per outing, while Perry led the team with 16.8 points and almost four assists a game.
Perry was named to the preseason first team, while Eargle made the second team.
"You've got leadership with guys that have been in the league three years," Slocum said. "They know what it is to be in the Horizon League. They know what it means to competitive. They know what it takes to win games."
One team that knew how to win games was Butler, which moved to the Atlantic 10 in the offseason.
"It gives everyone a chance to be the next Butler, to be dominant or make a statement. I see it as a great opportunity," Slocum said.
Eargle said YSU can't rest on a piece of paper saying they're No. 4 in the Horizon League.
"There's a positive to being No. 4 and there's a negative," Eargle said. "The positive is we've never been No. 4 in our lives before. A lot more people are starting to respect us. The bad thing is we're not No. 1. You don't get anything from No. 4. Way I see it and what I told the team, we've got to work hard to be No. 1. Nobody remembers four or three or two, people remember who wins the tournament and goes on to the NCAAs.
"That's what we're trying to do this year. We're very excited about it."
That hard work may pay off in a chance at a Horizon League championship.
"Fourth isn't one," Slocum said. "What we're striving to be is obviously the top half of this league. We also strive to be playing our best basketball in February to make a run at this conference championship."
And, the Penguins want to bury those aforementioned stigmas as well to quell any naysayers.
"We've just got to win - point, blank, period," Perry said. "That's the way you earn respect in a league as tough as this one by winning games. If we win, all the other stuff will take care of itself."
Practice starts this weekend and the first game is Nov. 10 at George Washington.
NEW COACH: Former assistant coach Byron Thorne moved to Virginia in the offseason to take a job with Jostens. Thorne is replaced by Steve Hall, a Detroit native, who spent the last four years as an assistant at Duquesne.