Youngstown State is a Feel-Good Story of this College Basketball Season

To appreciate where the Youngstown State men’s basketball team is going (the Horizon League Tournament semi-finals and possibly their first NCAA Tournament), you first need to understand where this program came from.  This has been a program with little success. Since joining the Horizon League in the 2001-02 season, the Penguins have had only two seasons with overall winning records. A tie for fourth place was their highest finish in the regular season standings. The Penguins overall record in Horizon League regular season play is 75-195. They have struggled even more in the Horizon League Tournament by going 4-15.  To translate these numbers, the Penguins have been decent at best on the hardwood. But more often, they have been below average. This is in contrast to having had some very good players over the years. In the Horizon League era, Quin Humphrey was a two-time All-League First Team Selection, while Kendrick Perry made the first team three seasons in a row. Keston Roberts, Damian Eargle, John Barber, and Image result for Youngstown State PenguinsBobby Hain were other notable players to wear a Penguins uniform in recent years. But YSU has not been able to have any sustained success.  They have not been able to break through that thick ceiling of mediocrity.  But the beautiful thing about college basketball is that no matter how poorly teams do in the regular season, they can still make it to the Promised Land of the NCAA Tournament if they qualify for and win their conference tournament.  So conceivably, a team could go 0-30 and then win a few games in a row and wind up in the Big Dance.  That is what makes college basketball so special.  No matter how tough of a season you had, it is never truly over until it’s over because the conference tournament is like a new season.

Youngstown State entered the 2017 Horizon League Tournament as the ninth-seed with an 11-20 record.  They had lost 7 of their last 8 games, and their defense was one of the worst in the nation in allowing over 82 points per game.  In Friday night’s opening round game, they played a Cleveland State team that they lost to just a few days earlier in the regular season finale. No one would have been surprised if the Penguins dropped another opening round game and headed home from Joe Louis Arena. But they used a balanced scoring effort, as all five starters scored in double-figures en route to an 84-69 win over the Vikings. The Penguins shot over 50% from the field, while holding the Vikings to just 38% shooting from the field. Then came the game against Oakland, and all signs pointed to a Golden Grizzlies win.  Oakland came into the game having won nine straight, and they beat the Penguins both times in the regular season by 14 and 29 points, respectively. And, oh yeah, this neutral site game was being played about 30 miles south of Oakland’s campus. But the longer the Penguins kept the game close, the better chance they had to win in the end. Junior superstar guard and All-League First Team selection Cameron Morse did a lot of what he does best, score the basketball. But ironically, when his team needed him to score the most and with the season on the line…he passed the ball. Morse had the wherewithal to see the floor and realize his team’s best chance to win was not by shooting a contested 25 foot jumper. It was by rocketing the ball to senior center Jorden Kaufman, who caught the ball and gracefully laid it in for the win.

How can you not root for a team that has had so many losing seasons in recent years? How can you not root for a team that plays in the shadows of a much more successful football program? How can you not root for a team that has had a fair amount of transfers leave the program in recent years (including this season’s leading scorer in the nation)?  The 2016-17 season will be another losing season for Penguins basketball.  But it already feels a lot better because they just made their first Horizon League Tournament semi-final game in 15 tournament appearances.  Since becoming an NCAA Division 1 team in the 1981-82 season, Youngstown State has made it to just one postseason tournament, the 2013 CIT (Collegeinsider.com Tournament). Winning two games in a conference tournament may not seem like a big deal, but it is for the Penguins.  It is the first time they have ever done that in the Horizon League, and the first time they won two games in any conference tourney since the 1998 Mid-Continent Conference tourney. Youngstown State is already a special college basketball story for not only beating top-seeded Oakland, but it was how they beat them that was so memorable. Head Coach Jerry Slocum has won over 700 games as a college basketball head coach. He would likely trade a couple hundred of those if his team could just get the next two. But this Youngstown State team has been a great story in this college basketball season, regardless of if they finally make the NCAA Tournament or not.

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Morse Connects With Kaufman to Lead Youngstown State to Epic Upset Over Oakland

With 3.3 seconds left and down one point, prolific scoring guard Cameron Morse drew all five Oakland defenders outside of the perimeter. He then rifled a pass into the paint area where a wide-open Jorden Kaufman caught the pass and laid the ball in as time expired, giving the ninth-seeded Youngstown State Penguins the improbable 81-80 win.  The game

Cameron Morse

Junior guard Cameron Morse was fantastic in YSU’s win. Photo courtesy of ysusports.com

was close throughout, with neither team leading by more than six in the second half.  After Morse banked home a jumper with 1:47 left in the game, YSU led 79-75.  But then Oakland stormed back by making two shots that got very favorable bounces, first a three from Sherron Dorsey-Walker, and then a Jalen Hayes hook shot from the paint on the next possession. After a couple of lengthy time stoppages for official reviews, regarding the ball going out of bounds and the subsequent substitutions, the Penguins finally had a chance to win, down just 80-79. Oakland had two fouls to give and they used them both, which left such a small amount of time for the Penguins to work with.  But it was just enough for them to win the game and not leave any time for Oakland to even inbound the ball again. Morse led all players with 34 points and had a team-high 5 assists. His last dime was undoubtedly the biggest one in YSU history. Kaufman added 22 points and a team-high 10 rebounds. Despite only attempting 9 free throws, the Penguins made up for it by going 7-16 from three point range, and shot 44.2% from the field overall, which included 6 more made field goals than Oakland.  Hayes led the Golden Grizzlies with 27 points and 13 rebounds, while his frontcourt partner Isaiah Brock added 14 rebounds and 4 blocked shots. Martez Walker added 22 points and Dorsey-Walker added 16 points and 8 assists.

 

The bad news for Oakland (24-8) is that they will not be returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.  The good news is that they did clinch a berth in the NIT because of them being the top-seeded team in the Horizon League.  The Golden Grizzlies have never played in the NIT before.  As for Youngstown State (13-20), they will look to continue their amazing run on Monday night when they play the winner of #4 Northern Kentucky and #5 Wright State. Two more wins will earn the Penguins a spot in their first ever NCAA Tournament.  This game will live on, not only as one of the biggest upsets in Horizon League tourney history, but also with one of the most memorable finishes.

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2016-17 HLeagueHoops Season Awards

Player of the Year: Alec Peters (Sr.) Valparaiso.

Defensive Player of the Year: Tai Odiase (Jr.) UIC

Freshman of the Year: Corey Allen, Detroit Mercy

*Most Improved Player: Justin Mitchell (Jr.) Wright State

**Transfer of the Year:  Bobby Word (Jr.) Cleveland State

Shooter of the Year:  Grant Benzinger (Jr.) Wright State

Low-Post Player of the Year: Carson Williams (Fr.) Northern Kentucky

Coach of the Year:  John Brannen, Northern Kentucky

*Only players who played in the Horizon League in the previous season are eligible for Most Improved Player.

**Only first-year Horizon League players who transferred from a JUCO or 4 year college or university are eligible for Transfer of the Year and All-Transfer Team.

 

All H-League Gold Team

Mark Alstork (Jr.) Wright State

Jalen Hayes (Jr.) Oakland

Alec Peters (Sr.) Valparaiso

Drew McDonald (So.) Northern Kentucky

Tai Odiase (Jr.) UIC

 

All H-League Silver Team

Cameron Morse (So.) Youngstown State

Shane Hammink (Sr.) Valparaiso

Lavone Holland II (Jr.) Northern Kentucky

Martez Walker (Jr.) Oakland

Jaleel Hogan (Jr.) Detroit Mercy

 

All H-League Bronze Team

Charles Cooper (Sr.) Green Bay

Rob Edwards (So.) Cleveland State

Corey Allen (Fr.) Detroit Mercy

Sherron Dorsey-Walker (Sr.) Oakland

Steven Davis (Sr.) Wright State

 

All H-League Defensive Team

Isaiah Brock (Fr.) Oakland

Josh McFolley (So.) Detroit Mercy

Tevonn Walker (Jr.) Valparaiso

Kenneth Lowe (Sr.) Green Bay

Tai Odiase (Jr.) UIC

 

All H-League Freshman Team

Corey Allen, Detroit Mercy

Isaiah Brock, Oakland

Tarkus Ferguson, UIC

Marcus Ottey, UIC

Carson Williams, Northern Kentucky

 

All H-League Transfer Team

Bobby Word (Jr.) Cleveland State

Stevie Clark (Jr.) Oakland

Clint Robinson (Jr.) UIC

Mike La Tulip (Sr.) Wright State

Jeremiah Bell (So.) Milwaukee

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Ferguson, Matthews, and Odiase Lead Flames Past Titans in Back-and-Forth Battle

In a game that had 19 lead changes, UIC endured past Detroit Mercy in an instant classic, 74-69. Both teams shot tremendously well behind the arc, while they struggled from two-point range. The Flames shot just 34.1% from two-point range, while they were a sizzling 45.5% (10-22) from downtown. The host Titans shot a paltry 26.7% from two-point range, while they were an impressive 45% (9-20) from three.  The biggest difference in the game, and the reason why the Titans did not make many two-pointers, was because of the Image result for uic flamesFlames stellar defense in blocking 12 shots. Not surprisingly, junior standout Tai Odiase had 5 blocked shots. There was a great sequence less than three minutes into the game, in which Odiase first blocked Corey Allen’s layup attempt, and then quickly recovered to block Jaleel Hogan’s shot from the paint.  Then, immediately on the other end, Odiase’s great defense was rewarded as he converted on an easy slam dunk. Odiase, the frontrunner for Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year, added 7 points and 7 rebounds. What is so impressive about the Flames defense was the variety of blocked shots: From help a help defender anticipating a shot by moving from the weak side; to timing it right to block a jump shooter (which is very difficult to do); to a guard sticking with a ball handler and then blocking his shot as he drives to the basket.

Redshirt freshman Dominique Matthews provided much of the early offensive spark for the Flames, as he finished with 19 points. Matthews has been on absolute tear as of late, averaging 19.6 points per game in his last six contests. Freshman Tarkus Ferguson really led the charge in the second half, as he finished with 20 points, including 4-8 from three-point range. Power forward Clint Robinson was the Flames most efficient player, finishing with 8 points and 8 rebounds in just 12 minutes of play.   The Titans were led by freshman star Corey Allen, who had a game-high 21 points.  The H-League’s best three-point shooter continued to exhibit his long-range prowess, as he went 5-10 from downtown. The Titans were up by as many as 8 points on two separate occasions, but the Flames quickly narrowed the gap at both points in the game. Titan big men Jaleel Hogan and Gerald Blackshear were solid, combining for 22 points and 15 rebounds.  But the Titans interior defense gave up crucial baskets late in the game in the paint, which proved to be a big difference. The Flames also made some crucial free throws down the stretch, going 6-8 in the final two and a half minutes of the game.

This was a very entertaining game that featured two young teams, who should be significantly better next season.  But both are still very good right now, and will be difficult match-ups for any opponent in the upcoming Horizon League Tournament. UIC improves to 14-13 overall and 7-7 in league play, which will almost assuredly earn them a sixth place finish in the final league standings. Don’t forget that they are prevailing without their superstar guard Dikembe Dixson. Detroit Mercy falls to 6-20 overall and 4-10 in league play.  Seeing as they are currently one of four teams with 4 conference wins, the Titans will likely finish anywhere from 7th to 10th place. On Sunday afternoon, the Titans will host Valparaiso, while the Flames will travel north on I-75 to play at Oakland.

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Green Bay Pounds Valpo to Keep Pace in Horizon League Standings

In a battle of two of the best rebounding teams in the country, Green Bay (11th at 40.7 rpg) dominated the glass, as well of the turnover battle, en route to an emphatic 86-69 win over league-leading Valparaiso (21st at 39.9 rpg). Despite having two seven footers, and one of the nation’s best rebounders in Alec Peters, Valpo got pushed around on the boards all day, as Green Bay outrebounded them 53-32. The Phoenix also had 20 offensive rebounds, which led to a lot of second-chance scoring opportunities and a major reason the free throw disparity was so huge. Equally impressive was that Green Bay only had 4 turnovers in the first 30 minutes, and finished with just 8 total. The Phoenix had a balanced scoring attack, with five players in double-figures, led by Kerem Kanter with 17 points and Charles Cooper with 15, while Turner Botz and Warren Jones each added 12. TheImage result for green bay phoenix Phoenix never relinquished their lead after going up 6-4 in the early minutes. Green Bay was up by nine points at halftime, and that lead swelled up to as much as 23 points in the second half. Valparaiso did not give up though, as they cut the deficit to 10 points with just about two and a half minutes left. But Green Bay settled down and worked the clock down to get good shots. This can be difficult for them to do because it is in contrast to their high-tempo style of play. Both teams shot an unimpressive 41 percent from the field. But the big difference offensively was that Green Bay attempted 35 free throws (making 24), while Valpo attempted only 18 (making 11).  Peters led all players with 20 points, but he failed to reach double-digits in rebounds for just the third time in the last 15 games. Tevonn Walker added 16 points in the defeat.

This is a particularly impressive win for Green Bay, given the fact that they lost at Valpo by 24 points a few weeks ago.  More importantly, the Phoenix improves to 9-3 (15-9 overall) in the Horizon League, putting them just a half-game behind Valpo’s 9-2 (19-5 overall) record. Both teams firmly hold the league’s top two spots, which is important to get the opening round bye in the Horizon League Tournament. Green Bay has recovered nicely following Sunday’s shocking one-point loss at Detroit Mercy. But now they will embark on a tough four-game road stretch, where all of their games are on the road, beginning Thursday at Northern Kentucky. Meanwhile, Valpo looks to recover back at home, as they begin a two-game stand on Thursday against Cleveland State. Don’t be surprised if these two teams wind up playing one another in the championship game at Joe Louis Arena.  Not only have they distanced themselves as the league’s two best teams, they are also the two most experienced teams who are led by seasoned upperclassmen. If they do meet in the title game, it should be an epic because, unfortunately, the Horizon League will not be getting any at-large bids in the NCAA Tournament. Just like last season, Green Bay is starting to peak at the right time.

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Dixson’s Shooting Numbers Prove How Much His Game Has Improved

Prior to the game in mid-December at DePaul, in which he only played six minutes, UIC superstar sophomore Dikembe Dixson was averaging 22.2 points per game. More Image result for uic flamesimpressively, he was shooting the ball immensely better than last season, when he won the Horizon League Freshman of the Year. His field goal percentage was up nearly 11% at 47.7%. What is most interesting about this is that he was attempting only 14.4 field goals per game, compared to shooting nearly 3 more attempts per game last season. Fewer attempts plus a higher percentage equals a massive increase in offensive efficiency. From downtown, Dixson was shooting 36.7% (an increase of 6.3%). His free throw percentage stood at 78.6% (up over 12%). Not only was he shooting the ball well from the charity stripe, but he got there 9.1 times per game in those first nine contests. If he kept that pace up, he would be leading the nation in free throw attempts per game and would be among the leaders in free throws made. And keep in mind he was doing all of this while playing nearly five minutes less per game than last season.

Anyone who increases their shooting percentages by that much must have worked extremely hard in the off-season because that explains how these numbers could soar so much. Repetition, repetition, and repetition is how players become better shooters, by taking lots of focused shots in a competitive environment.  Another explanation is that Dixson was able to take better shots because he has much more talent around him than he did last season. The Horizon League’s top recruiting class took the offensive onus off of Dixson’s shoulders. As a result, this made the Flames more difficult to defend because they have so many scoring threats, while Dixson remained the apex of the offense. This season, he was able to play more of his natural positions of swingman or, at the collegiate level, the stretch four.  Last season, he had to run the point and handle the ball much more. Dixson’s great ability to drive to the basket and finish strong has been evident ever since he has been at UIC. But the fact that he went from a mediocre shooter to a very good one shows determination. He will undoubtedly use that same resilient mindset to recover from the season-ending injury he suffered early in the win over DePaul. Don’t be surprised if Dixson comes back as a better and even more complete player than he was in the first nine games of this season. For the rest of the Horizon League, that is a scary thought.

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Horizon League is as Deep and Wide Open as Ever…Definitely

Just when we thought we had the Horizon League figured out, upsets galore occurred making the perceived weak look strong, and the thought-to-be mighty look meek. It essentially began on Thursday January 12th, when the winless (in the league) Milwaukee Panthers shocked a suddenly slumping NKU Norse team, who just weeks earlier was ranked third in our league rankings. The next night, the Detroit Mercy Titans traveled north on I-75 to outlast the first place Oakland Golden Grizzlies. Junior forward Jaleel Hogan was instrumental in the improbable Titan victory, carrying his team with a 39 point and 11 rebound performance for the ages. Then, for at least a day, things seemed to normalize. Wright State overcame a halftime deficit to defeat the again upset-minded Panthers. Valparaiso eventually kicked it into high gear to win at Cleveland State, and UIC needed OT to stay firmly in the league’s upper echelon by beating the seemingly always underperforming Youngstown State Penguins. Then came a Monday that no one saw coming. The 5-0 Green Bay Phoenix had a chance to assert themselves as the league’s Image result for horizon league basketballundisputed top dog. What happens? Valpo blows them out. Detroit Mercy is supposed to come down from their euphoric state and fall to Youngstown State, right?  Wrong.  The Titans have a deep bench and appear to be gaining confidence every day, making them a dangerous team to play come March.  And most shockingly, Oakland should have bounced back after their Metro Series loss and steamrolled Cleveland State.  But, you guessed it, another visitor had a career night at the expense of the Golden Grizzlies. This time it was Detroit native Rob Edwards, as the Vikings handed Oakland their second straight loss at home.

What is the moral of this wacky and inexplicable Horizon League extended weekend?   That this league (and its NCAA Tournament berth) is essentially anyone’s for the taking. It might just come down to who peaks at the right time and, like in the Oakland / Detroit Mercy game, who wants it more.  The only teams right now that I cannot see winning Motor City Madness are Youngstown State, Cleveland State, and Milwaukee. The Penguins cannot stop anyone defensively, the Vikings cannot rebound the ball and have a lack of interior talent, and the Panthers simply cannot put enough points on the board.  But then again, I never would have thought Oakland would lose both of those games at home. Maybe Northern Kentucky’s superior post scorers, Drew McDonald and Carson Williams, will get the Norse to their first NCAA Tournament. Or maybe one of the nation’s youngest teams, the UIC Flames, will finish at a fiery pace, all without their superstar Dikembe Dixson. Maybe Green Bay is bound to repeat as tourney champs with their experienced, high-scoring squad. Or maybe the cream will indeed rise to the top, and the two predicted best teams of Oakland and Valpo will square off in the championship game. Maybe Mark Alstork and Steven Davis will put the Raiders on their backs and do what last year’s team couldn’t.  Or maybe Detroit’s College Team will close down Joe Louis Arena the storybook way, with the hometown team winning. That was a lot of maybes. But one thing is for sure: These next several weeks of the Horizon League basketball season will be exciting, memorable, and completely unpredictable.

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