The first-place Youngstown State University Penguins—boy I can get used to saying that—will travel to Indiana to take on the Valparaiso Crusaders and Butler Bulldogs this weekend.
YSU will enter the contest on a three-game winning streak which saw YSU upset Cleveland State in Cleveland, squeak by a hard-nosed Loyola squad in overtime and blow out University of Illinois at Chicago to the tune of 21 points.
The Penguins currently stand at 9-6 overall, with a 4-1 Horizon League record, tied with Cleveland State and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for first place in the conference.
This is the first time in YSU's history that they were in first place in the Horizon League this late into the season. In addition, this is the best start for Youngstown State since the 2000-2001 season when YSU started the season with the same record. YSU finished that campaign 19-11.
On Friday evening Youngstown State will take on a Valparaiso squad that features the top offense in the Horizon League at 74.5 points per game. Unfortunately for the Crusaders, their defense is the worst in the Horizon League giving up 70.4 points per game.
Both teams pride themselves on pushing the tempo and in previous meetings that has led to a ton of points scored in each contest.
One thing working in Youngstown State's favor coming into this contest is their strong defensive play as of late. In Thursday evening's overtime win against Loyola, YSU tightened up on the defensive end in the extra session which propelled them to victory. Furthermore, on Saturday evening Youngstown State's defense completely dominated the UIC Flames, holding them to just 50 points on the evening.
If Youngstown State can bring that kind of intensity to the defensive end of the floor Friday evening, they have a great shot to knock off Valpo, the only school Youngstown State has yet to defeat in conference play since the Crusaders joined the league in the 2007-2008 school year.
Less than 36 hours later, Youngstown State will travel to Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, IN, to take on the two-time defending NCAA national runners-up, the Butler Bulldogs.
As you may recall, Youngstown State was the last team to defeat Butler last season until the national championship game when UConn defeated the Bulldogs. In addition, YSU nearly knocked off the Bulldogs at Hinkle last year in a game that was tied entering the final minute, with Butler eventually coming out on top 84-79.
Butler is younger this year and has yet to find their stride. They have some solid wins over Purdue, Stanford and UW-Milwaukee; but some bad losses to Evansville, Ball State and just this past weekend to Detroit.
Butler's two biggest struggles may actually be coming from behind the three-point arc, as well as at the free-throw stripe. These are two areas that Butler is notoriously strong in, but not this year as Butler is in the bottom third in the Horizon League in each category.
Butler still has a solid defense, but will it be enough to defeat one of the top three-point shooting teams in the entire NCAA in Youngstown State?
Last season YSU connected on 14 three-pointers in the loss at Hinkle, but came back and drained just half of that, seven, to send shock waves through the league in YSU's final conference win of the campaign, 62-60.
A high-scoring affair will favor the Penguins in this contest, but expect Butler to guard the three-point line as if there is no tomorrow and look to make this a battle in the paint. Fortunately for Youngstown State, that is a facet of their offense which has helped lead them on this three- game winning streak.
In conclusion, I will have the pleasure of taking in Friday evening's contest at Valparaiso and am quite confident I will see Youngstown State knock off Valparaiso for the first time since the 1990s.
Then on Saturday morning/afternoon, I will take in the Notre Dame game against UConn. It should be an exciting time for me as I am able to cheer on my two favorite NCAA teams!
Until next time, continue supporting these Penguins on the internet. They will feed off of your enthusiasm and they most certainly appreciate your support!