After an offseason that saw a lot of turnover with a lot of uncertainty, the Youngstown State University men’s basketball team showed a lot of what it can be this year. Unlike most non-conference slates, that was actually a good thing this year.
The Penguins played two games last week to a record of 1-1 with two hard-fought games against Penn State and against Southeastern Missouri State. Both were road games.
Let’s go in-depth a bit about both games to find out what really worked for YSU and what it needs to improve on moving forward.
Last season, the Penguins started 3-0 against clearly inferior competition so that won’t be counted, in my eyes at least, as a real non-conference schedule.
In the 2019-20 campaign, the Penguins went 7-6 with wins over Southeastern Missouri State, Binghamton, University of South Carolina-Upstate and North Carolina Central. So, nothing of incredible note, but that’s why the games are played.
Against the Nittany Lions, YSU put out what figures to be its lineup for the year with returning starters Garrett Covington, Michel Akuchie, and Shemar Rathan-Mayes along with transfers Tevin Olison and Dwayne Cohill.
It was apparent from the start that the Penguins lack of true size down low was going to hurt it and it certainly did. Despite that, YSU stayed close for the first 12 minutes of action in Happy Valley.
Down 22-21 at the under-eight timeout, the Penguins looked quite good defensively but the rebounding difference due to size was eventually going to catch up and it did.
From that point of the game, the Nittany Lions ended the first half on a 13-5 run to lead 35-26. A stretch from the 10:58 to the 5:55 mark saw the Penguins go without a made jump shot. In order to win games on the road in any gym, that simply can’t happen to this Penguins program.
Defensively, the Penguins couldn’t recover from such a disastrous offensive first half. The Penguins hit just three jump shots in the last 11 minutes of the half. YSU shot 3-of-15 in that stretch that saw it go from up four to down nine.
The second half had a much better offensive result with a similar defensive result. Akuchie came alive in the second half scoring 16 of his team-high 22 points. He ended up being the only starter to get into, and stay in, an offensive rhythm. He hit nine of his 18 attempts while the rest of the starters hit just 10 of 30 attempts.
Again, the size discrepancy hurt the Penguins mightily. The Nittany Lions shot 63 percent on two-point shots while the Penguins hit a measly 35 percent from inside the three-point arc. YSU was also outrebounded, 43-25, with PSU’s John Harrar pulling down 14 of them. This rebounding issue created a paint scoring issue as the Nittany Lions outscored the Penguins, 44-18.
Outside of Akuchie’s 22-points, 10-rebound performance, only Covington and Rathan-Mayes scored in double figures in the 75-59 loss.
SOUTHEASTERN MISSOURI STATE
For everything that the Penn State game wasn’t, the SEMO game most certainly was. Olison came out of the gate like a man possessed as he buried three-straight threes to put the Penguins up 9-0 quickly. After that, the Redhawks settled in and evened the score at 15 just about six minutes later.
The Penguins offense certainly improved over the Penn State game as it looked much more comfortable with being aggressive. YSU got to the free throw a ton which is something it has struggled to do enough of over the past few years. The Penguins went 28-for-36 from the line compared to SEMO’s 25-for-35 from the charity stripe.
The second half is where everything turned for the better for YSU after trailing 39-37 at halftime. The Penguins went on to outscore the Redhawks, 60-40, in the second half.
At the 15:05 mark in the second half, SEMO’s Chris Harris hit a three to give his squad a 49-48 lead. That would be the last time it led as YSU seemingly crushed the life out of the Redhawks. The Penguins rattled off a 21-3 run that ended with a Harris three-point make. YSU shot a scalding 9-of-11 in that stretch that put the game away as YSU put itself in overdrive before settling in cruise control with a few minutes left.
Olison carried over his hot start to finish with a game-high 27 points on 9-of-16 shooting. The entire starting lineup scored in double digits as Covington had 18 points and 10 rebounds while Akuchie had 16, Rathan-Mayes had 15 and Cohill finished with 10.
In a game that saw an offensive outburst, the Penguins seemed to improve from one game to the next. The Penguins dominated second half saw it bring home a 97-79 win.
It was nice to see YSU beat someone it should in a convincing manner as it did. This team put its foot on SEMO and didn’t let up all half.
The Penguins did a lot of encouraging things through its first two games. Through those two games, YSU has shot an identical amount of free throws. For the past few years, the Penguins have lost games due to a lack of aggression.
Akuchie has shown so far why he deserves the ball as much as he can get it. He averaged 19 points on 52 percent shooting with 50 percent three-point shooting. If he can keep that up, the Penguins ceiling is much higher than expected.
Conversely, the Penguins have won a game and stayed close without a ton of ball movement so far. I should say that in order for this team to continue improving, not only getting assists, but getting easy assists, will help win games.
The Penguins, especially against Penn State, were outsized which turned into being outrebounded. This team can’t win while losing the rebounding battle. This program never has and never will under those conditions.
There weren’t a ton of negatives so far but the Penguins played against two completely different teams.
We will see how this Penguins team will hold up this week as it hosts a Multi-Team Event (MTE). St. Thomas (MN), Niagara University and Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. It will be interesting to see if YSU can beat all three teams as I think it should be able to.