By Rick Henneman
The Youngstown State University men’s basketball team will host the Valparaiso University Crusaders (12-4, 2-1 in the Horizon League) on Jan. 12 at 7:45 p.m.
The Penguins (8-9, 2-2 in the Horizon League) are coming off a comeback win over Wright State University on Jan. 7.
“As starters, we have to start off with good energy. That’s what is going on this season; our first half has been a little struggle,” YSU center Jorden Kaufman said about the energy the team needs. “In the second half we do really well. If we can bring the same energy in the first half that we normally have in the second, we will be fine.”
YSU is averaging 77 points per game while giving up 82 points per game this season.
One of the problems YSU had faced early in the Horizon League schedule was poor free-throw shooting. YSU is shooting just 69 percent this season.
YSU head coach Jerry Slocum is impressed by how the team has recovered recently.
“We work hard on it all the time. About 70 percent of the year we shot the ball really well from the foul line. Hopefully we found some medication for the virus,” Slocum said.
Slocum said that the backcourt duo of Cameron Morse and Francisco Santiago is a major key to YSU’s future success.
“I thought going into the year that our backcourt was our strength. They got a lot of experience as a first-year-tandem last year,” Slocum said. “They play well off of each other. I think that both of them, especially Cam, kind of picked up his defensive effort during the last two or three games. That’s made them not only a good offensive backcourt, but a really good defensive one.”
Valparaiso brings with them one of the best players in college basketball: senior Alec Peters. Peters declared for the NBA draft following his junior season, but eventually decided to return to finish his college career. He currently averages a double-double this season with over 24 points and 10 rebounds per game. Peters is projected to be a mid-first round pick in the NBA draft.
Slocum is far from surprised by how good Valparaiso has been this year with players like Peters.
“Valpo is who they are,” he said. “They are one of the best mid-majors in the country. They probably have the number one player in the country out of the mid-major pool. You got to be able to put the ball in the basket because you know they will.”
Slocum also said that any time you have a guy like Peters on your team, you will have good results. Valpo has also returned four of their five starters from last season. Slocum said that is a huge plus for them.
Valparaiso leads the Horizon League in free-throw attempts per game (28.3 per game) as well as free-throw percentage (82.4 percent), and Slocum discussed that the Penguins will be focusing on staying away from foul trouble.
“They have good basketball IQ; you really have to guard the foul line against them,” Slocum said. “There are two things they do extremely well: they go to the offensive glass to get rebounds and they get to the foul line. They drive it, and they really make you foul — that will clearly be a game emphasis for us.”
The Penguins will also host the University of Illinois – Chicago (8-8, 1-2 in the Horizon League) on Jan. 14. UIC is second in the Horizon League for scoring defense (64 points per game) and three-point percentage (38.9 percent). Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.