Preparing for practice

‘Gritty’ is label men’s team seeks

Tribune Chronicle / John Vargo YSU men’s basketball coach Jerrod Calhoun breaks down some video during a recent practice. The men’s basketball team starts practice Sept. 30 in preparation for the team’s first game Nov. 11 at Akron against Kent State.

YOUNGSTOWN — Jerrod Calhoun is pointing at the flat screen TV propped up on a black rolling cart.

The Youngstown State University men’s basketball coach is picking out plays from teams such as West Virginia, UCLA and other top-tier programs. The Penguins players are learning the finer points of the games and implementing those facets into their own up-tempo style.

Some things you can’t learn from watching other teams. It has to come from within. The internal engine within each player exudes such action as YSU learns quickness to implement into its offense and defense.

These workouts build up to the team’s first practice, which starts Sept. 30.

Calhoun knows his system is complex, which leads to mistakes. That’s expected.

“What we really want is communication,” Calhoun said. “Energy. Enthusiasm. Then the togetherness piece is going to be really big. Each week we’ve had different themes. The (week of Sept. 11) was grit. We want to be a gritty team.

“When people say Youngstown State, it resonates that team is really gritty, plays really hard. That’s what we want our identity to be as a group.”

It takes conditioning. The team runs the length of the floor twice and tries to do it less than 22 seconds. Each player hears the coaches tell them to push harder to make their goal. Sometimes the body tells a different story.

“The next couple of weeks are going to be real, real big as far as getting them in shape,” Calhoun said. “My thing is basketball is a long, long season. Sometimes you’ve kind of got to pace them.”

YSU coaches, like any other college program, are allowed a limited amount of time on the court with their players.

Each drill and movement leads up to enhancing the team’s press, a vital part of the YSU look this season.

“What we’re working on the next two weeks is our press,” Calhoun said. “We want to have two or three different presses. For the next couple of weeks, we’ll dissect the press and how teams will attack our press. We want to know our three presses heading into the first practice.

“Through the skill stuff and the little bit of time we’re allowed on the court, we want to focus in on our press. When you start doing that, you start to get in better shape. Because the press takes a lot of energy. You’re flying around. You’re communicating. You’re trapping. You’re rotating. I think they’re starting to figure our exactly what we want as a coaching staff and what we want as team to be our identity.”

Francisco Santiago looks on from the sidelines or has the ball near midcourt. He hasn’t stopped talking, imploring his teammates to do the same.

Santiago, Cam Morse and junior guard/forward Braun Hartfield all return and know the importance of communicating with their teammates.

“All three kids are learning a new system,” Calhoun said. “As they start to understand the system, the communication becomes easier because they understand what we’re trying to get and what we want out of the different presses.”

He’s been out in the community, heard the different fans imploring him to improve the team’s defense, which has been one of the worst in the country the past couple of years.

“We’ve got to get stops,” Calhoun said. “We’ve got to get kills, three consecutive stops. Teams that get three consecutive stops in a game have a great chance to win those games. We like to try to do that three or four times throughout a game.”

The team’s 3-point percentage needs to improve as well. Hovering around the low 30s is not somewhere Calhoun and staff wants to see.

“That has to be a higher percentage if you want to win games,” he said.

This weekend the staff is at a retreat in Lake Milton to watch tape on upcoming opponents — non-conference and Horizon League.

The dry erase board will be scribbled upon, wiped off and reused many times as the coaches hash out their philosophies at a staff retreat. Calhoun said it’s a way his teams in previous season have begun the season before practices.

“In college coaching, unfortunately, basketball is not a lot of what we do,” he said. “In the offseason, we’ve been fundraising. We’ve been at different events. Now, it’s starting to get into basketball. That’s what we all love to do. I’m excited about that.”

Besides, Santiago, Morse and Hartfield, only Devin Haygood and Jeremiah Ferguson return. There’s junior college players and freshmen as well. All are learning a new system.

Calhoun said his upperclassmen have been a great support staff to his freshmen, who he said have come along quite well.

Just because it’s a new team doesn’t diminish the expectations of this program. He said the Penguins are still aiming high heading into the team’s first game on Nov. 11 in Akron as YSU takes on Kent State in the northeast Ohio Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.

“I think there’s been a huge commitment by our university in men’s basketball,” Calhoun said. “I think there’s a big commitment among our supporters out there in the community. The expectations are always going to be high.

“College athletics are a big business. It’s about wins and losses, but there are other aspects. You want your guys in the community. You want your guys winning in the classroom, No. 1. You want to help mold them to be role models one day. I put a lot of expectations on myself. I have to wake up and get to work. I really can say we have not stopped since the first day we’ve been hired. That all you can ask is work really hard. You can’t cheat the process. Guys that work really hard get rewarded.”

For YSU, it’s all about being gritty.