Injury slows Hoosier-like hope of YSU

YOUNGSTOWN — Things never go as planned, kind of like this column.

I thought watching the movie Hoosiers would give me the revelation I needed to pontificate about how rookie Youngstown State men’s basketball coach Jerrod Calhoun would morph himself into Norman Dale, a fiction high school mentor played by Gene Hackman who led his team to a state championship in his first season.

That was the 1980s. This is now.

Those Hickory Huskers won a state title over a larger, more athletic South Bend Central team. YSU plays at Butler on Saturday, starting at noon.

Both Hickory and YSU play at Hinkle Fieldhouse, which has been remodeled since the movie about the early 1950s team was made in the mid-80s. The only similarity is they are playing in the same venue.

Don’t look for Calhoun and his staff to set up wooden folding chairs to weave in and out of while dribbling a basketball along the way.

There’s no Jimmy Chitwood to save this Penguins team. Well, maybe there is? Cameron Morse has been the heart and soul of YSU’s team the past two seasons, but under this new system, he has struggled to find open jumpers — the trademark of his game.

It’s hard for Morse to find his mark because Francisco Santiago isn’t on the floor. Santiago was playing with a torn ACL this season, suffered during the offseason. The two were like Batman and Robin on the floor.

The senior point guard could not redshirt this season because of the year he sat out coming to YSU from Wheeling Jesuit after his freshman season. The Cleveland native, who has been playing at 50 percent (being generous saying that), has been playing with a knee brace. During the Robert Morris game, his knee was stepped on and shifted. Cartilage was torn and he has been out of action ever since. He missed the DePaul trip and is likely not going to Butler.

YSU has shown its up-tempo offense and pressing defense can work in brief spurts, but it hasn’t panned out overall. Santiago was tailor-made for this.

Here’s a player who is the most self-motivated basketball player I’ve ever dealt with in my 25-plus years of sports journalism (he has a coaching career ahead of him if that’s what he’d like to do). I’ve seen him go a day after a devastating overtime loss to Milwaukee last season and work for a couple hours by himself at the Beeghly Center on the team’s day off. It’s what he does.

It’s all about the effort for Santiago.

It’s what the younger version of Chris Jent, a player who played with reckless abandon at Ohio State in the early 1990s, did for the Buckeyes.

You rooted for Santiago to come back from this injury because of the passion he has for the game. You hear it in his voice every time he’s out on the floor and in his actions. It upsets me to see this happen to him. The former walk-on didn’t deserve this fate, not for his senior year.

Unfortunately, that’s the nature of sports, despite the fairness of it. GRRRR!

That leaves YSU with Morse, whose struggling to find his shot in an offense where he has to play point guard sometimes and cannot be the free-flowing shooter he once was.

Some of the freshmen have improved, but they are freshmen. Things take time, which is this month of December. Five games against DePaul, Butler, Utah State, Idaho State and Indiana netted YSU and the men’s basketball program $365,000. Four of these five games test the Penguins heading into Horizon League play starting Jan. 1 at Cleveland State.

With the point guard situation in flux, YSU must rely on its defense — something that hasn’t been there this season. Although, Calhoun liked what he saw in the first half against DePaul — forcing turnovers.

Trapping and playing full-court pressure, it was something that Hickory Huskers did late against South Bend Central to win that championship.

YSU has to work on not being out of position and getting burnt when it presses other teams. That, more than the offense, is crucial for these Penguins.

“No matter if you’re making shots or not, your defense has to be consistent,” Calhoun said. “I feel like it’s gotten a little bit better.”

With a 2-7 start, it’s not what Calhoun or his staff envisioned. Then again, things don’t always go as you plan. It’s the adjustments that make or break you.

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