Youngstown State returned home Sunday after winning two of three contests on an important six-day road trip.
Last Tuesday, Youngstown State went to US Cellular Arena and defeated a flat Milwaukee Panthers squad, 73-65. This victory, coupled with YSU's home win just 10 days earlier over these very Panthers, means YSU holds the key tiebreaker between the two for the remainder of the season.
This tiebreaker is key for Youngstown State, as these two teams are currently tied for third in the Horizon League standings.
Two days later, the Penguins squandered an early eight-point second-half lead to Illinois-Chicago, falling to the UIC Flames, 72-68.
Finally, on Super Bowl Sunday, Youngstown State took down the Loyola Ramblers in big fashion by the final score of 80-63.
This successful road trip for Youngstown State means this weekend's games against the fifth-place Butler Bulldogs and first-place Valparaiso Crusaders are that much more important.
On Thursday evening, Butler will invade the Beeghly Center as they look to avenge last year's 62-60 loss in Youngstown. As most Penguins fans know, that was the last loss for the Bulldogs until the national championship game, when they lost to Connecticut.
Last month, Butler hammered the Penguins, 71-55, at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Butler took advantage of 10 first-half turnovers, coupled with a dominant 34-24 performance in the paint, to take down Youngstown State.
I would expect Butler to go down low to Andrew Smith and Khyle Marshall early and often in an effort to get Damian Eargle in early foul trouble. As many fans know, when Eargle is on the bench, the opposition changes its offensive mindset and attacks the basket much more frequently.
Conversely, I would expect Youngstown State to try to make it an uptempo game, as they look to connect on a high number of three-point baskets. Naturally, that high-powered offense Youngstown State loves to run goes against the physical, in-your-face defense that Butler prides itself on. I believe they call that style of play the "Butler Way."
I would expect coach Slocum to have his team focused on the task at hand and stress not getting too caught up in the energy of the expected large crowd for this contest. As many know, YSU performed their worst in front of 6,313 fans for the Cleveland State game just two weeks ago.
However, to all the fans in attendance, it will be extremely important to make it a hostile environment as we look to knock off the Butler Bulldogs for the second straight year.
In case you didn't know, Valparaiso is undefeated against Youngstown State since joining the Horizon League for the 2007-08 school year. Although many of those contests were close, just a month ago Valpo took it to the Penguins, 76-62.
I attended this game, and Valpo shot a solid 46 percent from the field, but really took it to YSU at the free-throw line—they connected on 15-of-18 at the stripe, good for 83 percent.
Dating back to the Mid-Continent Conference days of the 1990s, I always viewed Valparaiso as a rival of sorts. However, it takes two teams winning in the series to make it a true rivalry.
For Youngstown State to make a true statement in this league, I feel a win over a Valpo squad that will be in either sole possession of first or second place in the Horizon (depending on what they do Thursday evening in Cleveland) will do just that.
Valpo and Youngstown State are similar insofar as they each have high-powered offenses and like to push the ball in transition. The main difference between each team is the fact that Valpo is much stronger down low with Kevin Van Wijk and Ryan Broekhoff, while Youngstown State is better shooting three-pointers.
The bottom line is this: If you like offense, this is a game you will not want to miss. I expect a very high-scoring game which will likely go back and forth and down to the wire.
If the Penguins can play for a full 40 minutes, I feel they have a great shot of shaking things up in the Horizon League by beating the Crusaders.