Tough non-conference slate ends at Indiana

Tribune Chronicle file / Marc Weems Cameron Morse (24) leads the YSU Penguins into their game Friday at Indiana.

Jerrod Calhoun looked at the Utah State film again.

He and his coaching staff saw it live, but had it reinforced — seeing their players understand their roles on this Youngstown State University team.

He’s seeing players like Garrett Covington and Braun Hartfield step up as essential wings on this maturing Penguins team, which is trying to slowly establish its presence through a trying non-conference schedule. It’s a schedule that was profitable.

The total is $355,000. The top two games, Indiana ($95,000) and Utah State ($90,000), go to the YSU Athletic Department. The remaining $170,000, plus $55,000 for the late-November Sanford Pentagon Showcase and the trip to Idaho State ($10,000), goes to the basketball program. The Idaho State game includes two nights of hotel accommodations.

You would think this team, which is 2-10 heading into Friday’s non-conference finale at Indiana, could’ve been better.

There’s the injury, which for all intents and purposes is a season-ender for senior point guard Francisco Santiago. He has played too many games in his career and, according to the NCAA, cannot apply for a medical hardship and a sixth year of eligibility because he transferred from Wheeling Jesuit to YSU after his freshman season. He had to sit out one season because of NCAA transfer rules.

That said, he tried to play with a torn ACL suffered during the summer, but after a Robert Morris player stepped on his knee in late November, Santiago’s career is likely finished — a player who may have meant a couple of more wins for the Penguins if healthy.

Add to that backup point guard Jeremiah Ferguson had his nose broken the first game of the season against Kent State. He had to sit out the next couple of games and plays with a face mask, setting back his progress.

The team’s other true point guard and likely next year’s starter, Devin Morgan, has to sit out because of NCAA transfer rules after coming from Delaware State. The former MEAC Freshman of the Year has two years remaining.

“If you look at our schedule, you look at some of the breaks that we’ve had, this team has really been set up to fail between myself in scheduling,” said Calhoun, YSU’s first-year coach whose team plays Friday at Indiana, starting at 8 p.m. “We knew in the first year this is what we wanted to accomplish, wanted to raise a lot of money. We certainly didn’t realize we’d have the injuries that we’ve had.

“All of this will help us come conference play. It showed our team did not have any quit in them in the Utah State game. I think that speaks volumes of the type of kids we have. I think they’re not only looking to Indiana, but to the Horizon League.”

Santiago was the ying to Cameron Morse’s yang the past two seasons in the YSU backcourt, leading Morse to all-Horizon League honors.

Wednesday at Utah State, Morse saw some of those screens he saw during his career, which made him so successful — having 23 points at Utah State.

“Cam finally found that stroke which was great to see,” Calhoun said. “He’s really been struggling. A lot of that is playing without a point guard.

“It’s pretty evident that Cisco helped him along the way to give him shots.”

Calhoun said forwards Tyree Robinson and Devin Haygood have been doing better of late, giving the Penguins a more athletic lineup.

The two have been in foul trouble most of the season and didn’t play most of the Utah State first half because of some 50/50 balls.

The aggressiveness of these two and the YSU team goes without saying, which was evident at Utah State — a 91-74 loss which wasn’t decided until the last couple of minutes.

“If you play really hard, it makes up for a lot,” Calhoun said. “I thought that’s what they saw.”

This team was inches away from steals and turnovers, but it’s always improving.

Eventually, this YSU team will have the wings and other players with the length and athleticism to achieve the pressing defense that is a staple of a Calhoun-coached team.

The Penguins have 113 steals this season.

“All of that will come in time,” he said. “All of that will come in recruiting as we develop a deeper bench that has length.

“That’ll continue to get better because it’s been good all year.”

The concentration going forward has to be inside, getting high-percentage shots. YSU has taken 99 more shots than its opponents.

“It shows our inability to shoot from the outside,” Calhoun said. “Our bigs have got to be good.

“We’ve got to be a great offensive rebounding team come Horizon League time.”