AMHERST, Mass. – Youngstown State couldn’t break through for a significant non-conference win on Sunday to follow their opening weekend. The Penguins came in at 4-0, winning the Kennesaw State Tournament last weekend, a good start. UMass was a little tougher than the first four teams they played, so the 85-69 setback isn’t shocking, but in all this is a program that might be ready to turn a corner after a lot of struggles.
“When your two seniors have nights like they had, it’s tough to be able to come in and beat a team as talented as they are,” said head coach Jerry Slocum. “I thought offensively, we had some open looks, we didn’t make them.”
Although the football program has long been a powerhouse, winning four national championships, the basketball program has been closer to a laughingstock during much of its Division I history. Prior to the past two seasons, the only other time they had consecutive winning seasons came from 1982-85, when they had three in a row. They have struggled since moving to the Horizon League after spending much of their time in the Ohio Valley and Mid-Continent, posting a 54-146 record in the league. They have had just one winning season in league play, a 10-8 mark in 2011-12. They have won just four games in the Horizon League Tournament since joining in 2001, but the encouraging sign is that two of those wins have come in the past two seasons.
So on the surface, this team looks like they could be on their way at last. Looking at this year’s team, there’s more to be encouraged about. They have a solid group of veterans surrounded by some younger talent that has potential. In fact, they got a first-place vote in the Horizon League preseason poll, where they were picked fifth. Now they have to produce.
“We’re very happy in terms of the progress we’ve made,” said Slocum, now in his ninth year at the helm. “We’d like to take the next step now in terms of being able to play a little more consistently over the course of the year.”
The Penguins have a hidden gem in Kendrick Perry, a senior guard who was picked as the preseason Player of the Year in the Horizon. When it’s all said and done, he’ll be in the program’s top ten all-time in scoring and should at least get to third in assists. But lots of struggling teams have had players put up numbers, so what will distinguish Perry is if this team can win again this season while he adds to his place in the record books. So far, he’s been equal to the task, although Sunday wasn’t his best performance as he scored 14 points on 6-20 shooting.
Bobby Hain has been the primary complement, and the sophomore big man entered Sunday’s game playing well of late. He has a good body to battle inside, although he can look awkward at times, and had a double-double against UMass with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Ryan Weber, a threat from long range, and Kamren Belin, who never got untracked Sunday, help Hain up front, while D.J. Cole is a good complement alongside Perry who entered Sunday with a 5.7 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Behind the starters are a couple of players who have a chance when their turn comes. Freshman Marcus Keene is Perry’s heir apparent and had a game-high 20 points on 8-16 shooting on Sunday, while classmate Kyle Steward is athletic and has some length on the wing. While Slocum thinks Keene will help them down the road, it’s clear he can help them even sooner than that although he’ll surely be better later.
The Penguins now have a combination of talent, experience and class balance they haven’t had in a long time, if ever in their Division I days. The opportunity is there to move up in the Horizon League, have another winning record and build on the tournament success come March. They start two seniors, a junior and two sophomores, so they look poised to not only have another step forward this season, but also to not have much slippage when their best player is done after this season.