When Youngstown State released their non-conference schedule over the summer, it seemed to profess over-confidence. Even though those in the know in the Horizon League knew the Penguins likely had the best team in their program's history on their hands, it looked like their schedule wasn't going to do them any favors: Only four of their first 16 games against Division-I opponents were at home, including six of their first eight games of the season on the road, and endless quality opponents.
But less than a week into the season the Penguins are proving the skeptics and the believers wrong: This schedule might not be challenging enough.
On Saturday YSU easily handled George Washington — even though starting two-guard and All-Horizon first-teamer Kendrick Perry reportedly wasn't at 100 percent — en route to an 80-73 win against the A-10 team, and last night — just two days later — the Penguins rolled past Georgia, 68-56, after leading the whole way. That's the first time that the Penguins have ever beaten a team from a BCS conference, and only their fifth win in 27 tries over an A-10 team in the last 10 years, and both were in impressive fashion: Dominant, on the road, textbook wins.
Understand, Youngstown State has never made the NCAA Tournament. In fact, they've finished among the bottom two teams in the Horizon League for seven of the past ten seasons, and their 16-15 finish last season was their first winning season since 2000-2001. But this is a team on the verge of making a lot of history, and you should get to know them. Start here.
Alma mater of Ron Jaworski, Youngstown State, giving it to Georgia in Athens. Dawgs on the ropes. Always liked Kendrick Perry — Dave Telep (@DaveTelep) November 13, 2012
Youngstown State's 47-33 lead at Georgia is surprising but not stunning. The Penguins may be biggest Horizon challenger to Valpo & Detroit. — Jeff Eisenberg (@JeffEisenberg) November 13, 2012
So, the obvious three reasons (returning really efficient starters Perry, Blake Allen and Damian Eargle) aside, how are they doing it?
Last season the Penguins ranked dead last among all 345 D-I teams for bench minutes (15.4 percent), because head coach Jerry Slocum just couldn't get results from anyone outside of his starting five. This season he brought in a deep and talented corps of newcomers that came ready to immediately contribute, and they have.
Against George Washington, and with an ailing Kendrick Perry, the YSU bench scored 31 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked one shot. D.J. Cole was the main contributor for the 'Guins bench in last night's defensive battle. The sophomore guard had five points, three boards and two assists in 26 minutes on the floor. Already Cole is three points away from eclipsing his total for all of last season in which he appeared in 24 games (but got very few minutes or possessions).
Bobby Hain also has been an important boon for the bench. The 6-10 freshman scored 19 points in his college debut against George Washington to go with a 11 boards. The Florida native has a 70.3 true shooting percentage. This depth not only shows in the box score, but it brings confidence to every player on the floor for YSU.
The Penguins held George Washington to 0.91 points per possession and Georgia to a minuscule 0.78, but just how good were those offenses?
The Bulldogs returned four starters to their 15-win team from last season, but played meagerly on offense (0.88 ppp) in their opener against a Jacksonville team that isn't good at all, and George Washington is a middling team to begin with. Still, Slocum cant ask for much more defensively. His team has forced 29 turnovers, blocked 12 shots and forced their opponents to shoot 40-110 (36.3 percent) from the floor.
Combined, YSU has allowed their two opponents to score 0.849 points per possession. Over the past 10 seasons no Penguins team has recorded a defensive efficiency lower than an average of 1.02 ppp.
Kamren Belin (pictured above)
Slocum brought in the JUCO transfer to take over where inefficient DuShawn Brooks had played in the Penguins' frontcourt as a starter last season, and already Belin has shown that he's more valuable than his predecessor. The Georgia native has produced 23 points, 15 boards and two blocks in his two starts.
Slocum is making some pretty crazy recruiting inroads in unlikely places. Jeff Eisenberg wrote a lot of really great words about this specific topic.
The Penguins finally get to relax when they face St. Francis (Pa.) at home this Friday for what should be a double-digits win, but then it's back on the road to Pittsburgh for the Progressive Legends Classic where the 'Guins will face North Dakota State, which was picked second in the Summit League's preseason poll and features junior returner Taylor Braun.
Duquesne, South Florida and Kent State still loom in non-conference play.