Penguins push in practice in preparation for season
YOUNGSTOWN — Jerrod Calhoun watched anxiously with a whistle dangling from his neck, waiting for his players to change stations.
The Youngstown State University men’s basketball coach is beginning to see things develop with his new system through the team first week of practice.
On Wednesday, three groups took shape and huddled when they were done.
The first station was something that looked like yellow handlebars, lined in a row, straddling the baseline. You could see players like Michael Akuchie working his 6-foot-8 frame, vigorously jumping back and forth and over the implement, improving his agility.
Others were in front of YSU assistant coach Jason Slay, the youthful, invigorated coach, who verbally pushed his players to whip their jump ropes faster, enhancing bounce in their steps.
The last station had each player dribble as they walked through the rungs of a rope ladder laying flat on the floor. Each player then approached YSU graduate assistant Shammgod Wells holding a red, cushioned pad, which covered his chest. Players dribbled toward the basket as Wells simulated contact near the hoop.
The game clock inside the Beeghly Center counted down each station. All groups huddled before each heard the horn and advanced.
The Penguins practices are based on constant motion. No elongated breaks, just occasional stops.
“You don’t have to condition as much because we’re conditioned on the court,” YSU senior point guard Francisco Santiago said. “A lot of the time people get tired so fast because it’s hard 100 percent.
“The practices are scheduled to be three hours. We’re finished in 2:20 because everything on the schedule is done, because everything we’re going through is so fast. Running to water. Running back.”
Devin Haygood, a junior forward, bolted through the lane on a half-court drill, taking a pass as he headed toward the basket, elevating and slamming the ball with his right hand.
Tyree Robinson, another junior forward, shot and missed a free throw. It was purposely done to start a full-court break.
Senior shooting guard and first-team Horizon League player Cameron Morse dribbled in from the left side and saw his layup glide off the front of the rim. Robinson trailed the play and stuffed the ball home with both hands, one of many thunderous dunks he’s displayed this offseason.
“His effort has been awesome rebounding the basketball,” Calhoun said.
This new uptempo offense and full-court trapping defense is beginning to take shape, but one is definitely ahead of the other at this point.
This is a program showing a vast improvement physically from years past when 20-loss seasons were the norm. The Penguins, 13-21 last season, had one of the worst defenses in the country, giving up about 86 points per game. That, like the losing ways, seem long forgotten.
It’s just a matter of getting the offense up to where the defense is in this style of play which is derived from a number of sources. Kevin Mackey had quick-strike play in the mid-1980s at Cleveland State. Former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson trademarked his “40 minutes of hell,” which was later implemented by former Kent State and CSU mentor Gary Waters. Then, Calhoun’s mentor, Bob Huggins, sees West Virginia use a style called “Press Virginia.” Calhoun at one time was the director of basketball operations for the Mountaineers.
“Watching them on tape, I would say our defense is way ahead of our offense,” Calhoun said of his team. “Kids really play hard on the defensive end. They’re making the rotations. They’re flying around. I think offensively we can continue to get better. We’ve got to screen better. We’ve got to cut better.
“Ball has to go through the basket. You always have to shoot it better. I’ve been real pleased so far.”
Three-point shots fly, especially out of the hand of lanky 6-9 forward Jacob Brown. The freshman from North Carolina is accurate, shooting long-range 3s from each side.
Morse, who averaged 24 points a game last season, is the focal point of this offense, but the onus doesn’t solely rely on his shoulders as it would on dominant scorers from YSU’s past.
This Penguins team plans to go 10 to 11 deep because of the intensity of play and not rely on offense or defense to be its lone strength.
“You can’t be good in one and bad on the other,” Calhoun said. “Offensively what we’re looking for is a balance of four, five guys close to double figures.”
These 20 YSU players, both scholarship and non-scholarship, are learning the facets of Calhoun’s style of play, which has high school coaches from around Ohio and western Pennsylvania coming to practice and watching this new, exciting system — trying to take these lessons back to their respective clubs.
Even former PGA golfer and Mahoning Valley resident Jerry McGee was looking on Wednesday, expressing his happiness of seeing something much different from this YSU team.
Calhoun added that players are remaining healthy, which is essential this time of the year.
“They’re all willing learners,” Calhoun said. “They’re doing a tremendous job picking up things. When we get into this and get a chance to play someone else in two to three weeks in a scrimmage, that will give us a better idea where we’re at.”