YOUNGSTOWN — It’s been a trial by fire for the Youngstown State men’s basketball team to this point, and that trend will continue through the end of this week and into the weekend.
The Penguins (2-3) have been dealt a tough hand in having to figure out how to replace fifth-year senior guard Garrett Covington, who ruptured his Achilles in the team’s home opener Nov. 19. YSU won that game over St. Thomas, 79-75, but followed by dropping back-to-back contests to SIUE and Niagara over the next two days.
But with some time off — the Penguins haven’t played since that Nov. 21 loss to NU — head coach Jerrod Calhoun is optimistic as YSU gears up for its first conference games of the year. Youngstown State visits the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee tonight and then Green Bay on Saturday.
Calhoun explained that YSU was scheduled to practice early last week, but didn’t due to an illness in the locker room. Instead, the Penguins took most of Thanksgiving week off, then have practiced since Saturday.
“I think having these five days to kind of regroup has been really good,” Calhoun said. “I’ve been very pleased with our leadership with Michael (Akuchie) and Jamir (Thomas) and Shemar (Rathan-Mayes). Some of these guys have been around and have done a real nice job.”
But, he acknowledged, “We have to play much, much better than we did over the weekend (of Nov. 26-28).”
Then, too, YSU has had time to adjust now. Covington’s injury came on Day 1 of a three-day MTE, and so the Penguins were forced to adjust on the fly.
Now, after some practice time, Calhoun hinted that some changes are on the way.
“I don’t think you can totally change everything, but I do think there are some strategic things you can do that I think you’ll see (tonight) that we just didn’t have enough time (to install),” Calhoun said.
In terms of replacing Convington’s production — he was averaging 10.3 points and 5.3 rebounds this season — Calhoun said it will take “a little bit of everything.”
Specifically, the four remaining starters — Dwayne Cohill, Tevin Olison, Akuchie and Rathan-Mayes — and whoever becomes the fifth man in will need to up their games. So, too, will some younger players, Calhoun said.
“Owen Long’s coming off a wrist injury and really hasn’t gotten into a rhythm. He’s a guy I look forward to seeing his production,” Calhoun said. “Jamir is certainly going to be asked to do a lot more. He’s coming off an ACL injury. So these are all things sometimes that are a little bit out of our control.”
He also pointed to Myles Hunter, Daniel Ogoro, Owen Long, Chris Shelton, Will Dunn and Jacori Owens, who Calhoun noted had “an awesome week of practice.”
A change to the Penguins’ lineup schemes may be coming, too. YSU entered the year using a 4-guard approach, but Calhoun said the team will “look at some bigger lineups, and we’ll look at some small lineups. We’ll figure it out.”
Milwaukee (1-5) has found itself in a similar situation to YSU’s. The Panthers were picked fourth in the Horizon League Preseason Poll, but are off to a shaky start thanks in some part to their star guard being injured.
UWM’s Patrick Baldwin Jr., a 5-star recruit and son of head coach Patrick Baldwin Sr., has missed the last two games with a sprained ankle after colliding with an opponent during Milwaukee’s 82-68 loss to Bowling Green on Nov. 23. The Panthers were 2-2 prior to that.
Baldwin’s status for tonight is unknown, but Calhoun is wary of what he can do if he does play. The precocious freshman averages 15.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per game.
“(Baldwin Jr. is) one of the most talented guys I’ve seen in my five years, if not the most talented. He’s 6-foot-9 with the ability to do a little bit of everything,” Calhoun said. “Projected lottery pick. It’s going to be a challenge, but I think our game prep has been really good this week. Our guys are locked in.”
Milwaukee is no one-man show, though. DeAndre Gholston was a Preseason All-Horizon League Second Team selection, and is averaging 15 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
Saturday’s opponent, Green Bay, also is off to a tough start. The Phoenix (1-5) dropped their first five contests before taking down Division III UW-Superior, 77-48. UWGB was slated 11th out of 12 teams in the preseason league poll.
Donovan Ivory and Emmanueal Ansong lead the Phoenix statistically. Ivory, a 6-foot-6 guard, averages 13.2 points and 4.3 rebounds per contest, while the 6-foot-4 forward Ansong is scoring at a 12.3-point pace and pulling down 6.5 boards per game.
This weekend’s road trip will be YSU’s only Horizon League contests until league play begins in earnest Dec. 30.
“You want to get off to a good start. You’re playing for seeding; you’re playing to win a championship,” Calhoun said. “Games on the road are hard. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing; they’re very difficult to get. So we’ve got to have a really good 48 hours in the state of Wisconsin.”