Penguins open season against powerful Akron

YOUNGSTOWN — Jerry Slocum is growing weary of the question.

Has the Youngstown State men’s basketball team’s defense improved?

The question is valid since this team surrendered 83.8 points per game and 87.3 in Horizon League games last season.

“We worked at it. We worked hard at it,” said the YSU men’s basketball coach. “Glad that’s come up again. Somebody get a new horse to hit.

“… Obviously it’s an emphasis for us. It’s something we’re working hard at.”

That will be tested as the Penguins face the Mid-American Conference’s top team in Akron Saturday at 7:45 p.m. at Beeghly Center, in the nightcap of the Northeast Ohio Coaches vs. Cancer doubleheader. Cleveland State and Kent State tangle in the opening game at 5 p.m.

The Zips had 26 wins last season and came just short of going to the NCAA Tournament, losing in the MAC title game.

“Akron is probably the best team in the MAC,” Slocum said. “I would want to open up against a good team like that. We’re just as hungry as they are. It will be a really good team.”

Really, Akron is that good of a team.

The Zips, 26-9 last season, return three of their top four scorers — Isaiah Johnson (6-foot-10, 290 pound, center), Antino Jackson (5-11, 160, guard) and Noah Robotham (6-1, 165, guard).

Last year’s second-leading rebounder, Kwan Cheatham Jr. (6-10, 235, forward), returns as well.

“I think they’re the best opponent we’ll face all year aside from Michigan State and Ohio State,” Slocum said. “I do believe they’re better than Valpo in our league. I think this is a team that has it all. Great guard play. Two really, really good bigs. Almost everybody back on a team that some argue that should’ve got an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. We obviously have a challenge ahead of us.”

The Zips like to play inside-out basketball, which is going to challenge the Penguins.

“Our main focus is playing hard D and getting out in transition,” YSU junior guard Cameron Morse said. “We still have to play our game too. We know they like to go down to the post and kick out for 3. We have to work these next couple of days on stopping.”

Akron and Toledo are the Penguins first two opponents, which will challenge this YSU team that finished 11-21 last season.

Slocum said the defensive woes are a thing of the past.

The Penguins are led by Morse, a first-team, all-Horizon League player who averaged 20.3 points last season. There’s also Matt Donlan, a small forward, who had 13.1 points, along with assists leader (139) point guard Francisco Santiago.

It’s a team Slocum said earlier this preseason could go 10 deep.

“I think we’ve improved in almost all areas,” he said. “I think we’re better because of our experience, because of what this group went through. When you play with freshmen and sophomores all year, I think the value of that experience helps you with the offense and defensive ends.

“I think we’ve made some great strides in all areas of the game. Very on-task group. Group that works extremely hard. Group that likes each other. Has some clear goals and purpose on what they want to achieve. This group has been a blessing this fall. They’ve done a nice job.”