New style puts jolt into men’s hoops

YOUNGSTOWN — One or two guys off bench.

Cameron Morse forced to play almost the entire 40 minutes. Most times, it was 40.

No depth. Half-court boredom.

That was years passed.

This year, the depth expands and the new-look Youngstown State University men’s basketball team goes to an up-tempo offense and pressing defense.

“We’d like to establish a first unit and a second unit,” YSU first-year coach Jerrod Calhoun said. “The more these kids play with one another, the better. Right now, it’s trial by error.”

Eventually, the Penguins, who went 13-21 last season, want to go 11 deep on a team jammed pack with 20 scholarship and non-scholarship players.

It’ll be fan-friendly basketball, not something that’ll lull someone to sleep.

“This type of system wears you down,” said Calhoun, whose team opens the season Saturday in Akron against Kent State. “It’s hard to play against and really prep for. You’re not used to the constant trapping and playing a lot of guys. They have to know a lot of personnel.

“I think fans will like to see it because all the kids are engaged into the game. We’re not there yet. We have to continue to work on that bench and get these kids ready to roll.”

Sophomore Jeremiah Ferguson, who saw little playing time last season, will get some time in the backcourt. Senior transfer Jaylen Benton, a Columbus native, comes in from Southeast Missouri State.

The mainstays for the third straight year, seniors Cameron Morse and Francisco Santiago, return. Morse led the team with 23 points a game, while Santiago added 158 assists.

Familiar faces sophomore Braun Hartfield and junior Devin Haygood return. That rounds out the five coming back from last season after former coach Jerry Slocum retired a day after the season ended.

Hartfield returns to more of a natural position, going to a small forward/shooting guard slot.

Freshmen Michael Akuchie and Naz Bohannon, along with junior Tyree Robinson are parts of the team’s concept as well.

“We’re looking at a few different lineups,” Calhoun said. “More importantly, we’ve got to establish that depth. If you’re going to play this style, you’ve got to have nine or 10 guys that can go and can press and fly around.”

Like most successful mid-major teams, it all begins and ends in the backcourt — those who have won and went deep into the NCAA Tournament. Guard play like those teams from VCU, George Mason, St. Joseph and others have relied on stout floor generals.

“At our level it starts with the guards, you’ve got to have really good guard play,” Calhoun said. “You got to have guys that are decision makers and tough, gritty and spread you out.”

Senior Ryan Strollo, who has seen little or no playing time in his YSU career, may have his role changed this season.

“Personally I’m excited to get a chance to play and contribute to this,” he said. “Just the excitement that he brings to the program and looking forward to the season, that’s the biggest thing.

“I’m a shooter. He (Calhoun) wants as many 3s as possible and that’s what I can bring to him.”

Everyone on this team need a to accept their roles to make this new system a success, Calhoun said.

There are only a half dozen players with previous Division I experience. The rest are freshmen and junior-college players.

“Guys need to be more accepting of their roles,” Santiago said. “Everybody was the man where they were before. You’re not the man here yet. You might be later. There’s still guys that have been here, Braun, Cam. Those are the guys right now. People need to see what they can do to help the team win, whether that’s crashing the glass every time, just boxing out or diving on the ball for loose balls, making extra passes. Those things are going to go a long way for our group.”

You can bet Morse is the one to still lead these Penguins, who will have mass substitutions during the course of a game — similar to line changes one sees in hockey.

No skates or ice here, just big guys and squeaky shoes.

“You’re going to get tired a lot,” Morse said. “I still feel the way we play and my scoring efficiency, I still feel like I can score around those numbers.”

He added Detroit and Green Bay are the only two Horizon League teams to push tempo. Morse hopes his team can get the other league teams to speed up, create turnovers and get out in transition.

“With our style, we can be top three in the league,” Morse said.

Calhoun hopes this playing style represents Youngstown.

“This reckless, causing havoc, this toughness, I think it will reflect our city,” he said. “Fans will like it. It will give us our best chance to win, not only right away, but on a consistent basis.”