YSU’s focus is this year’s NCAA Tournament

YOUNGSTOWN – The CollegeInsider.com Tournament, better known as the CIT, ended the Youngstown State men’s basketball season last year.

The first-round win against Oakland and second-round defeat to Niagara gave YSU fans something they’ve never seen – postseason tournament games at the Beeghly Center.

This year, the Penguins, coming off an 18-16 campaign, want much more.

They have arguably the best player in the Horizon League in 6-foot, 175-pound senior guard Kendrick Perry. He’s been a two-time, first-team all-league selection and paced YSU with 17.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.9 steals last season.

“I’ve been very fortunate in my time here to get preseason accolades,” he said during Thursday’s media day at the Beeghly Center.

Perry, along with Oakland’s Travis Bader, have been tabbed as Lou Henson Preseason All-Americans. The Lou Henson Award goes to the top mid-major player in Division I college basketball.

He said none of those honors matter if he can’t leave YSU as a Horizon League champion.

“I’m very appreciative of it all,” Perry said. “Like I’ve been saying all offseason, my focus is that championship in March – that Horizon League Championship. It doesn’t go unnoticed by myself. I’m very thankful for everything. It’s not what’s going to define me at the end of the day. What’s going to define me is a championship for my team.”

Jerry Slocum is very upbeat these days. The YSU coach saw practice start Sept. 26, weeks earlier than years past because of a new NCAA rule change allowing teams to spread out the 30 preseason practices in 42 days before its first game, which is Nov. 8 at Kennesaw State.

“You’re not feeling so rushed, trying to go six days in a row, off days and all that stuff,” Slocum said. “We haven’t went any more than three.

“It’s an exciting time for me as a coach and a teacher, to be in the gym with your guys more, being able to do that.”

He’s quick to point out that he’s excited to see the senior leadership of Canfield native Mike Podolsky, Kamren Belin and Perry. Slocum said players like Shawn Amiker and Josh Chojnacki, to name a few, had great offseasons.

YSU recruited freshmen Jalon Plummer, Kyle Steward and Marcus Keene.

“One through 14, it’s the most talent we’ve had,” Slocum said.

The Penguins need every bit of talent heading into what is perceived to be an even Horizon League. During the offseason, Loyola bolted for the Missouri Valley Conference and Oakland was added from the Summit League.

“I think the Horizon League is as balanced as it has ever been,” Slocum said. “You get, over the last three to four years, perennially the worst team in the league out of the league. Then, you bring in a team that’s been to the NCAA Tournament like Oakland, which is very, very talented and has a lot of good basketball tradition and players. I think it’s going to be a dogfight. The whole situation for our league is who’s playing best in February gets a chance to win it. That will be our goal. We have a very challenging out-of-conference schedule that I think will get us ready for our year.”

The highlights of YSU’s non-conference slate are at Massachusetts on Nov. 17, at Pittsburgh on Dec. 14 and at St. John’s on Dec. 21.

“We have to grow and how you grow is by challenging your group, going to St. John’s, going to Pitt, having people come into your gym,” Slocum said. “Those are the kind of things that grow you up. We’re a young team. We’re going to have a lot of sophomores at times, freshmen on the floor. We need to throw those guys into the fire and get them battle tested.”

YSU doesn’t begin league play until 2014, starting a three-game road trip at Milwaukee (Jan. 2), at Green Bay (Jan. 4) and at Illinois-Chicago (Jan. 7).

“Six out of the last seven years, we start league play on the road, which is obviously a rub point for me,” Slocum said. “Here we go, we’re going to Milwaukee, to Green Bay, to Chicago. We’re leaving on a Wednesday and coming home on a Wednesday night. If that’s not going to get us tough right off the bat, nothing’s gonna.”

YSU has to get over its two losses to graduation – Warren G. Harding graduate Damian Eargle and Blake Allen.

“The bottom line for us we’ve moved on with some very skilled guys,” Slocum said. “I think there’s guys that are capable of filling those roles, but they’ll do it differently. We’re not going to lead the country in blocked shots, so we better be better defensively than we’ve ever been because we don’t have a guy (Eargle) back there to bail us out. I think there’s going to be situations for us offensively too that we’re not going to shoot as many 3s. We had a guy (Allen) last year that led the league in 3-point shooting (shots made), but I think we got guys capable of making shots.

“I’m encouraged and excited about this group. I’m encouraged and excited about the development they’ve had in the weight room, their conditioning, their commitment to each other. It’s a very close group. It’s been a fun group to be around.”