Penguins go south for games
YOUNGSTOWN — Donel Cathcart III admits he’s never been outside the continental United States even though he grew up near the Canadian border in Buffalo, New York.
He and the Youngstown State University men’s basketball team took a flight to the Virgin Islands on Tuesday to play three games this week in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The Penguins face the University of Calgary tonight at 5, then face the U.S. Virgin Islands national team Thursday at 3 p.m. before closing the trip against Calgary Friday at 10 a.m. The games will be broadcast on WNIO 1390-AM.
The Dinos went 29-2 last season. Northern Kentucky beat the Virgin Islands team by one point last week at the UVI Sports and Fitness Center on the island of St. Thomas.
“This is something new for me,” Cathcart III said.
NCAA men’s basketball teams can make an international trip once every four years. YSU looked at going to Italy, but staying on this side of the Atlantic Ocean made more sense for an athletic budget not as sizable as most schools.
“We looked what was feasible for us,” YSU coach Jerrod Calhoun said. “Obviously, it’s something we can pay for out of our budgets. We don’t want to put the school in any sort of discomfort with that. We felt the Virgin Islands could accomplish a lot. I think the competition is really good.”
Practice makes perfect
On Monday, the Penguins finished their 10th allotted practice leading up to the three games on the trip.
Calhoun, who has been on these trips before with other teams, said the games benefit your team by cleaning up things with returning players. There are eight players on the trip roster: sophomores Jelani Simmons, Darius Quisenberry, Olamide Pedersen; juniors Naz Bohannon, Garrett Covington, Michael Akuchie; seniors Cathcart III and Devin Morgan.
An intrasquad scrimmage was held Sunday and Calhoun said YSU played 36 minutes and saw some good things.
Sophomore transfer Tyler Foster (East Carolina), junior Jamir Thomas, junior Christian Bentley and freshman Daniel Ogoro are new to the roster. Geoff Hamperian, Warren JFK graduate Justin Bofenkamp and Kenny Ganley Jr., are the team’s non-scholarship players.
The best thing Calhoun has seen is the chatter increasing throughout the summer.
“They get more comfortable with one another, not only on the floor but off,” Calhoun said. “Basketball is so different than those other sports. We really spend a lot of time with our guys. It seems like there is no offseason. I’ve seen a great change in all of them.”
On the defensive
The increased talking in practice is leading to better defensive looks, something Calhoun hopes to see on the trip.
The Penguins spent a lot of time working on defense, one of the worst in the Horizon League last season.
“Hopefully we see our defensive numbers take a jump because we’ve talked about that all offseason,” Calhoun said. “Our defense has to continue to get better. I’m anxious to see the defense. They’re probably anxious to see another team. I’m anxious to see where our defense stands.”
Cathcart knows if this YSU team wants to succeed, he’d better hear some noise during practices and games.
“It starts on defense,” Cathcart III said. “Coach emphasized defense a lot this summer where last year there wasn’t so much defense. You have to communicate on defense. If you want to be a good team, you have to communicate.”
This is a YSU team which a season ago had a six-game winning streak lasting to mid-February, giving hope for the 2019-20 season.
“Everybody is more involved in buying into what it is,” Bohannon said. “They believe in the system. We tell them to listen to coach. It’s the right way.
“We had a glimpse of what we could be last year.”
New day, new staff
Assistant coach Brady Trenkle headed home to Idaho to be closer to his family, while director of player personnel Kevin Bruinsma left for Florida, changing his career to real estate.
Calhoun did some readjusting on his staff, promoting Jason Slay to associate head coach.
“I think he’s done a tremendous job since he’s been here,” Calhoun said.
Ethan Faulkner comes aboard after being on John Brannen’s staff at Northern Kentucky. Brannen left NKU to take a nearby job at Cincinnati this offseason.
“He understands the Horizon League,” Calhoun said. “He was an overachiever as a player and has a great basketball mind. He’s really going to help us on the defensive side.”
Calhoun also hired former University of Michigan staff member Chinedu Nwachukwu, who is there to bolster the offense. Michigan has been to a couple national championship games in the past seven years.
“He’s been showing us the way, giving us the ropes,” Bohannon said. “Whenever guys have problems, he pulls me to the side. Let me explain it to you. He just knows the game.”
Cardinal Mooney High School graduate Danny Reese moves into Bruinsma’s spot, while Paul Molinari is the director of basketball operations. Calhoun said Molinari knows the ins and outs of the YSU Athletic Department and “has done a tremendous job of organizing this trip.”
It’s a staff to point the Penguins in the right direction.
“I think that will play to our strengths as a whole, and we’re really excited about it,” Calhoun said.