Horizon League Preview: An unlikely Florida pipeline has sparked Youngstown State’s revival

On the first day of snowfall his freshman year at Youngstown State, Kendrick Perry admits he was laughably ill-prepared.

College Hoops Countdown, No. 14: Horizon League

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An unlikely Florida recruiting pipeline has sparked Youngstown State's revival
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The Florida native walked out of his dorm clad in a thin sweatshirt because he hadn't looked out the window that morning, not that he would have been all that much more suitably dressed either way. He didn't own any boots or gloves, none of his pants were fleece-lined and his entire winter wardrobe consisted of some long-sleeved shirts, a light jacket and a pair of hooded sweatshirts the team provided him.

"I was walking so slow through the snow that I was late to class because it was so cold and I had never seen so much snow before," Perry said with a chuckle. "My mom told me to take pictures, and I told her it wasn't happening. It was too cold and I couldn't stay outside that long."

Winter horror stories like that one have become increasingly common in the Youngstown State basketball program in recent years because the coaching staff has cultivated an unusual recruiting pipeline. In the Penguins' past five recruiting classes, they've landed five players from the state of Florida, three of whom will be key members of this season's team.

Perry, a 6-foot junior from Ocoee, Fla., earned first-team all-Horizon League honors last season after averaging 16.8 points, 3.9 assists and 2.4 steals per game. Blake Allen, a sweet-shooting 6-foot-1 senior from Tampa, contributed 12.8 points and 3.0 assists per game a year ago and sank 42.9 percent of his attempts from behind the arc. And Bobby Hain, a skilled 6-foot-10 freshman from Jupiter, Fla., figures to play immediately this season and perhaps even compete for a starting job.

"Florida will be an emphasis as long as I'm at Youngstown State because we've had good success with a lot of great kids," Penguins coach Jerry Slocum said.

"People have heard about us down there now. When we walk into a lot of different high schools in Florida, they'll say, 'Oh, yeah, I know Kendrick Perry. He went there.' The nice thing is we have one kid from the Orlando area, another from the Tampa area and another kid from Jupiter, Fla. There's an opportunity to spread ourselves over the whole state."

The presence of that Florida trio is a huge reason why Youngstown State hopes to emerge as a Horizon League contender this winter after years of being a laughingstock.

In the 30 years since the Penguins jumped from Division II to Division I, they've never won either a regular-season or conference tournament championship. Youngstown State has finished last or second-to-last eight times in 11 seasons in the Horizon League and its best result is a tie for fourth in 2007.

The program's first signs of life in years came last season when the Penguins won 17 games and finished above .500 in Horizon League play for the first time ever. Perry, Allen and defensive standout Damian Eargle return from that team, giving Youngstown State hope of making a leap in the standings this year if its recruiting class can fill some of the holes left by graduation.

"With Butler gone, the opportunity to move up and surprise people is there," Slocum said. "I'm very happy with where we're at and all the kids we have coming back. One of the things that kind of goes unnoticed about our team last year is we only had 13 home games. To win 16 games with only 13 home games, that brought a mental toughness to us, a confidence of starting to believe. I think it was a real positive step for us."

If the Florida pipeline was one of the keys to Youngstown State's revival, then the Penguins can thank a Lithuanian-born forward with a smooth shooting stroke for getting it started.

Vytas Sulskis, who moved from his Lithuania to Gainesville, Fla., when he was 16, averaged double figures during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons at Youngstown State and now plays professionally in his home country. At the recommendation of a friend in Florida, Slocum watched Sulskis at an AAU tournament when he was in high school, offered him a scholarship and eventually landed him, an innocuous addition at the time that now looks much more important.

Youngstown State's success with Sulskis persuaded Slocum to make a more concerted effort to recruit Florida despite the vast cultural and climatic differences between the two regions. The 2009 addition of forward Eddie D'Haiti turned out to be a bust when he transferred after just one season with the Penguins, but subsequent prospects from Florida have proven far more successful.

The first of those was was Allen, though he initiated the relationship with Youngstown State rather than the other way around.

Since the Tampa native had played against Sulskis on the AAU circuit and was good friends with former Butler standout Shawn Vanzant, he was more knowledgeable about both Youngstown State and the Horizon League than most Florida-born prospects. As a result, he sent the Penguins a highlight tape in March of his freshman year at Redlands Community College in hopes they might show interest.

Slocum was recruiting another point guard at the time, so he only casually stayed in touch with Allen. Once an off-the-court incident led to Youngstown State being unable to accept the other point guard, however, Slocum belatedly tuned his attention to Allen.

"It didn't happen until the summer time, but in my head I was like, 'This is going to work out. I'm not going to have to go back to junior college,'" Allen said. "Not that junior college was a bad experience for me, but I had been two years out of high school already and I ultimately just wanted to get to Division I. I had it in my mind that somebody was going to give me a chance, and ultimately someone did."

The recruitment of the other half of Youngstown State's vaunted backcourt duo was a bit more traditional.

Slocum and his staff first showed interest in Perry the summer before his sophomore year of high school because they liked his unselfishness and athleticism. They kept recruiting him even after he broke his leg three games into his junior season, sending get-well cards and letters at a time when bigger schools like LSU and Ole Miss backed off.

At first, Perry had minimal interest in the Penguins because he dreamed of playing for an in-state power like Florida, Florida State or even Central Florida. But as he matured, Youngstown State's loyalty became more important to him.

"As a kid, you see these big schools fall off once you get hurt, and it's tough," Perry said. "I still remember having a conversation with my mom and having her tell me straight-up, 'It's a business.' After I evaluated everything and saw how committed to me Youngstown was, that definitely weighed into my decision."

Even though Slocum was excited about both Allen and Perry when they arrived on campus, he admits both have turned out better than even he anticipated.

Allen has emerged as a capable leader and facilitator and sank 25,000 shots this summer to keep his shooting stroke on point. And Perry has blossomed as a scorer by improving his perimeter jump shot and getting stronger so that he can now absorb contact and still finish at the rim.

Youngstown State would love if Hain's career followed a similar arc to his Florida-born teammates.

Hain was largely unknown as a prospect until the summer before his senior year of high school when he played on the AAU circuit for the first time. He had played mostly on the perimeter until shooting up to 6-foot-10 via a late growth spurt, so he was able to impress college coaches with his ball handling and shooting range for a big man.

When Hain received a scholarship offer from Youngstown State, he wasn't familiar with the Penguins the way he was Stetson, Florida Atlantic, Florida Gulf Coast, Jacksonville and the other in-state schools that recruited him.

"I was like 'Youngstown? Oh, OK, I'll look into them,'" Hain recalled. "They were sending me letters every day and calling as often as they could. Then when I came on my visit, in the open gym session we played together it just clicked. I felt like this was a good team that had potential to grow."

Although Hain didn't know either Perry or Allen before he arrived at Youngstown, they've quickly formed a close bond this fall.

"When one of us does something positive, we always joke, 'Oh, it's because he's from Florida,'" Perry said. "And at the same time, when we mess up, the other guys get on us and say, 'Oh, it's because they're from Florida.'"

The best advice Perry and Allen have given Hain is to make sure he's ready for winter.

Perry has told him about his frigid walk to class the first day of snowfall his freshman year. And Allen has shared similar stories of walking through the snow in tennis shoes until his feet were wet, cold and numb.

"Everyone's telling me they don't know how I'm going to make it," Hain said. "I have no coats right now and I have no boots. I'm definitely going to have to go shopping."

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