Penguins plan to take defensive effort on the road

YOUNGSTOWN — In a recent game at Oakland University, a couple of Oakland season ticket holders were heard talking about how the Golden Grizzlies were playing an inferior Youngstown State team.

The Penguins have been a different team in Youngstown. Fans of the Penguins men’s basketball team have seen glimpses of what coach Jerrod Calhoun wants to bring to this team, a strong defensive presence.

He celebrated a second-half, shot-clock violation against IUPUI on Saturday, even rousing his bench to the point that senior guard Cameron Morse almost toppled his coach.

This is something Calhoun saw on a consistent basis at Fairmont State, one of the best NCAA Division II programs the past couple of years. Thirty-plus wins a season ago and a national championship appearance. Defensively, this was one of the nation’s best.

He’s hoping Saturday’s win over IUPUI shows this Penguin team it is not one that rides a rollercoaster throughout the season as its done in the past. Instead, it is showing steady improvement in a 6-15, 4-4 Horizon League season.

Seeds three through six in the Horizon League Tournament could play for three straight days for an NCAA Tournament berth in an obvious one-bid league. That’s YSU’s ultimate goal.

“We have to put ourselves to be in the upper half of this league,” Calhoun said. “You have to keep getting better. With low-to-mid-major basketball, you’re basically playing for three days in March. Our guys are understanding if we play defense, we have a shot.”

It starts tonight at Milwaukee (10-12, 3-6). YSU beat the Panthers earlier this month and also beat Green Bay (8-15, 3-7), who the Penguins play Saturday afternoon.

Those two wins capped a three-game winning streak for YSU to start Horizon League play, when not many people around the league gave the Penguins much hope of playing well considering they had two wins in non-conference play — both against NCAA Division III teams.

Things started to come together in mid-December and trickled into league play. However, YSU hasn’t seen a complete, 40-minute performance this season. Saturday’s IUPUI game is probably the closest the Penguins have seen.

On the road, it’s different. YSU is 1-9 away from the Beeghly Center and 5-2 at home. Two of those road losses, at Detroit and Wright State, could’ve been wins if not for the last 8 minutes when it seemed the Penguins didn’t carry their defensive intensity.

Calhoun tried something different on Saturday, going with a deeper lineup as his bench responded. Heck, the Penguins followed the scouting report, something they didn’t do against UIC last Thursday.

Calhoun said his bench pushed the team to the win, through an inter-squad scrimmage on Friday, testing the young Penguins.

YSU senior point guard Jaylen Benton, who had 12 points off the bench, said locking down in the last 8 minutes is crucial.

“We see that lead on the scoreboard and sometimes we get comfortable,” he said. “We shouldn’t get comfortable. We should keep the pressure on the other team.”

Not many teams in the Horizon League have been successful on the road. Only Wright State is above .500 on the road at 6-5. Northern Kentucky and Oakland are both .500, but no other league team has more than three road wins.

How does Calhoun help transfer the energy YSU had against Milwaukee and Green Bay at home and bring it to the two road games this week?

“If I was a magician and I could wave that wand and say, ‘Hey guys, let’s play like we did against Milwaukee and Green Bay.’

“Unfortunately, we have to go through some growing pains and recruiting classes.”