Penguins return home after struggling on road

YOUNGSTOWN — Establishing culture isn’t just for the changes happening around Youngstown.

The Youngstown State University men’s basketball team knows it is viewed solely on wins and losses. The 5-14 mark heading into tonight’s game against Illinois-Chicago is what it is. College basketball is a result-driven business, viewed by fans, administration and other onlookers.

YSU is 3-3 in the Horizon League, tied with UIC (8-11) for fifth place. The Flames have won three of their last four games, while the Penguins have dropped three straight on the road. The return to the Beeghly Center tonight for a game starting at 7.

“I really feel the last two weeks we’re starting to establish a bit of a culture, culture of understanding how hard it is to win on the road — a culture of understanding when you do things right you win,” YSU coach Jerrod Calhoun said. “We’ve got to be a little bit tougher, not only physically, but mentally in these games on the road.”

The Penguins showed signs of offense and, especially, defensive prowess on the road. YSU led by three at halftime, limiting league-leading Wright State to 35 points. Youthful YSU showed its age and found out how difficult it is on the road, especially in the Horizon League. This Penguins team was close. For that reason, YSU has a new perspective.

“We got a lot to build off of,” Calhoun said. “I think our guys are a very angry team right now. They’re upset because they know the opportunities that were there on the road.

“We have to play angry the next couple of games. We have to get back in front of our fans.”

Just as this Penguins team is establishing a culture, so is UIC. The Flames are 7-4 at home, but 1-7 on the road. Dikembe Dixson is the team’s leading scorer with about 15 a game, while Marcus Ottey scores more than 13. However, the key to UIC is shot blocker Tai Odiase who leads the Horizon League with 56 swats.

“I really respect (coach) Steve (McClain) and what he’s trying to establish at UIC,” Calhoun said.

YSU players are coming around, understanding what changes are taking place and how this will eventually result in a culture change.

“I think we’re now starting to understand what he’s bringing to the team,” YSU senior guard Cameron Morse said about Calhoun. “As players, we’re starting to mature, starting to understand our roles in order for us to be successful.”

This season is for Penguin players like Morse and the other three seniors on the YSU roster.

“Sometimes you’ve got to go through some growing pains in this league to figure it out,” Calhoun said. “We’ve got to go fighting for those seniors. We’ve got to claw to the very end for these kids.”

No one said it would be easy. YSU has seen its starting point guard Francisco Santiago go out with a season-ending ACL tear.

There’s been a nine-game losing streak dating more than a month in non-conference play, with the only two wins against NCAA Division III teams.

YSU opened league play with three straight wins, followed by three consecutive losses on the road.

During that road trip and the one to Indiana, there have been travel snafus, weather delays and even Calhoun spending about an hour trying to de-ice his car during the wee hours of the morning.

“You can write a book on this season,” Calhoun said. “It’s been nuts. We’ve got to keep fighting.”

HOMECOMING: Calhoun and his staff invited past players, coaches and anyone involved with the men’s basketball team back this weekend for a dinner Friday and to be recognized during Saturday’s game against IUPUI.

He’s hoping there will be around 50 former players returning this weekend, but sees that number growing as the years go along.

“We want to hear their stories,” Calhoun said. “I think it’s so neat to hear about their experiences as a player, as a student-athlete at YSU. Just sit around and get to know these guys.”