YSU hoops taking steps to be relevant

YOUNGSTOWN — A few of us were standing along the sideline during a recent workout.

Two hours of watching the Youngstown State University men’s basketball team came to an end.

A handful of players approached and outstretched their hands. Quick introductions and thank yous for watching them perform on the floor. The humble nature comes directly from their coach, Jerrod Calhoun, who is adamant about selling this product — one that hasn’t been in demand for quite a while.

It takes time to make the demand more than the supply, something that has been the case for the better part of three decades. Drills. Shooting. Instruction. Running … and running some more. All part of this illustrious up-tempo game coming to a Horizon League gym near you.

Calhoun and his assistants have been very active on social media as well. Twitter and Instagram accounts have been chock full of training footage on the floor and in the weight room, along with service projects outside the YSU campus.

This team has been visible to the Youngstown fan base, something that’s been lacking for quite a while.

However, like Larry David, I’ll curb my enthusiasm.

Learning a new system isn’t easy. There are six returning players from last year’s team. Add to that four freshmen, three junior college transfers and a transfer from Delaware State who is likely the 2018-19 starting point guard. Mix in a couple of walk-on players.

The anticipated season, something that hasn’t been uttered from a football-centric fan base since the heydays of Dom Rosselli and Mike Rice, is less than three months away. It all begins with the Northeast Ohio Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at the University of Akron. The host Zips play Cleveland State in one game, while YSU takes on Kent State in the other on Nov. 11.

Rotations, schemes and this up-tempo system have to be learned. School starts next month. Add another layer.

It won’t be easy, but neither is anything worthwhile. Conventional wisdom says this team is a year away from dominating the Horizon League. That is dependent on how quickly this team grasps this system, which is akin to the speedy pace shown by the Kevin Mackey Cleveland State teams of the 1980s.

That style of play is the key. Ask Oakland coach Greg Kampe, whose team has dominated the regular season of the Horizon League for the past couple of years.

“I will say Jerrod brings a unique style of play,” he said. “To get Youngstown going, I think you might need that. Some energy with the style of play, it’s different than everybody else.

“I think he’s got a chance with what he’s doing to really make an impact on the league, just because Green Bay will try to play that way, but they don’t have the players to do it.”

Kampe knows things follow a pattern. He has known Calhoun for a while, but he was a fan of former YSU coach Jerry Slocum as well and said he never wanted to demean anything Slocum did with the Penguins.

The highlight was this year’s Horizon League Tournament. This provided the platform for Calhoun.

Slocum had a different demeanor that week coming into his team’s opener against Cleveland State, a team that decimated them a week earlier. YSU throttled the Vikings and set themselves up with a date with top-seeded Oakland.

Cameron Morse found a wide-open Jorden Kaufman under the basket for a last-second victory in Detroit — a victory that went viral for the next 24 hours before Northern Kentucky ended the Penguins’ season. It was the furthest YSU advanced in a tournament since 1999.

“You’ve got to give that guy credit for that,” Kampe said. “You can’t say it was a fluke. He coached his (butt) off and did it.”

This Penguins team is working very hard this summer.

YSU players are working to channel their aggressive play into a new system. Players are in new roles. Posts are required to handle passing duties more than in the past. It’s equal-opportunity play under Calhoun. Considering this team is going anywhere from nine to 11 deep on any given night, depth is mandatory. Conditioning is key. In other words, championships are won during the summer.

This is a Horizon League that is in transition with the addition of IUPUI and the loss of Valparaiso.

“I think this league is in transition,” Calhoun said. “I think it’s like a lot of mid-major leagues. I think the transition is going to be really good. We just hope our style of play we can be successful in this league.”

The aggressiveness is there, that’s for sure. The willingness to improve is visible, but grasping Calhoun’s concepts are going to take time.

Team unity is the core concept of this team. They’ve brought in many guest speakers, and teammates have learned how to be one unit on and off the Beeghly Center court.

When a player falls during practice, coaches and players rush over to help them to their feet.

This is more than giving your teammates a hand. Step by step, YSU is building a tradition to complement a football-dominant athletic program.