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 Bobby 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.