Penguin basketball progress continues

Pat Birch had an open-ended invitation. Jerrod Calhoun, Youngstown State’s first-year men’s basketball coach, recently told all the area high school boys basketball coaches that they were invited to his team’s practices.

It was an offer Birch couldn’t refuse. Now Calhoun might not be the Godfather, but you can believe his players are refusing to keep things as a status quo — the way YSU basketball used to be.

A couple of hundred fans saw the beginning stages of pressure defense and uptempo offense during Tuesday’s exhibition against Thiel.

What those people in attendance saw Tuesday was a unified group. Calhoun said his team really likes playing for one another, and it shows in practices.

“On game days, we’ve got to be totally unified,” he said. “Bench was really into it. That shows they care for one another.”

A couple of other housecleaning items need addressed moving forward. The offense is not where it needs to be, missing 20 3-pointers.

Better looks are needed and better decisions on whether or not to shoot a layup.

“I think it’s still getting used to the style,” Calhoun said. “With time, that’ll get better.”

So will the team’s effort.

“When you’re teaching effort every day, you’re not a championship team,” Calhoun said. “We’ve got to continue to grind on these guys, get them better, watch the film, watch the practices.

“When it’s a player-driven organization, that’s where we need to be. Sometimes in practice I’ll be completely quiet and see if they’ll communicate. There’s times when I’ve got to get a little bit louder and get on guys.”

Most prognosticators think Oakland is the dominant team in the Horizon League. On paper, it is. YSU has 11 guys who haven’t played Division I basketball.

Is YSU going to surprise some teams? Absolutely. Is this going to be the best team in the Horizon League next year? Not yet, but the Penguins’ day is coming.

Calhoun wants this team to have a blue-collar, gritty attitude and hold his players accountable.

There are a lot of plays where some of these players take off. They’re getting adjusted to a faster tempo. There isn’t a light switch Calhoun can turn on and everything goes to what he had at Fairmont State.

Now, those are two different levels, Division II (Fairmont State) to Division I (YSU). Coaching is coaching and winning is winning. Some things transcend levels of basketball.

With more practice, this team gets better. It is that way with all walks of life.

On Sunday, YSU will hold a closed scrimmage with Niagara. On Nov. 4, the Penguins are at IPFW — both teams likely to win their respective leagues.

“I think it’ll be a good gauge to see where we’re at,” Calhoun said.

These players are getting better, especially on defense.

Cameron Morse, a first-team All-Horizon League player who averaged around 24 points per game, has added a new wrinkle to his game. Calhoun said he’s guarding harder than he ever has.

Muscle memory helps these players break habits, normal style offenses and defenses.

“With practice and time, it gets better,” Calhoun said.

With growing pains, there’s bound to be success.