The task ahead won't be easy, but Youngstown State University men's basketball coach Jerry Slocum sees it more as a litmus test.
The Penguins start the 2012-13 season Saturday at George Washington. Tipoff is at 4 p.m.
Monday, YSU travels to Georgia. The rest of the early slate puts St. Francis (Pa.) at Beeghly Center on Nov. 16. Then, from Nov. 19-21, YSU plays in the Legends Classic at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh against North Dakota State, James Madison and host Duquesne.
The stretch ends with a pair of Mid-American Conference teams - vs. Kent State (Nov. 28) and at Bowling Green (Dec. 1).
"It's a concern that we're able to keep our focus and kind of overcome that challenge," Slocum said. "When you stop to think that five our of your first six are against good opponents on the road, it's going to mature us quickly. We're going to see what we have and what we need to work on as we get ready for, obviously, league play.
"We're going to get tested by fire. This is not an easy stretch. By any means, this is the toughest beginning we've ever had since I've been here."
The Penguins are coming off of a 16-15 campaign, best since the 2000-01 season.
"I've been thinking about this day since early March when we got put out. It's definitely exciting and I think we're ready to get to it," YSU 6-feet, 180-pound junior point guard Kendrick Perry said.
The Penguins are taller this year, having six players on the roster 6-6 or taller. The tallest one at YSU is freshman Bobby Hain, who is 6-10, 235 pounds.
"With the new guys coming in, I think we took care of our height issues that a lot of people questioned us about last year," Perry said. "I think this team is more balanced. I think we're more athletic.
"We'll still be able to run like last year, but at the same time box out and get defensive stops and defensive boards to win games."
Rebounding is a must for YSU to succeed.
"We've got to rebound the basketball," Slocum said. "All of these teams are teams that can go get it. I'm a little concerned about our younger guys. We're really going to need those guys this year, relevant to some bench play and good size that we need to have. Those guys are going to have to mature quickly."
YSU starts off with George Washington, which returns four of its starters - including 6-6, 207 guard Lasan Kromah (11 points per game) and 6-8, 220 forward David Pellom (10.4 points per game).
Villanova transfer Isiah Armwood (6-9, 210) is also part of the Colonials' mix.
Playing on the road is about being mentally prepared, Slocum said.
"What makes it tough is playing in their building," he said. "I think we have keep our emotions and play team basketball. There's certain things you have to do to win on the road. One is you have to take care of the ball. Two, you've got to be able to rebound the basketball. You can't give up second shots. The third thing for us is we've got to be able to execute.
"We've got to be able to go in and take away some things they do well and make them play to their weakness."
The Penguins start the season with three returning starters - Perry, 6-1, 180 senior guard Blake Allen and 6-7, 225 senior forward Damian Eargle.
"Those three guys have got to carry us," Slocum said. "They are guys who have played in a lot of big moments. They need to carry us. They need to inflict their presence in the early part of this year. When you have the challenge we have. When you have the challenge of playing five out of six quickly on the road. I'm not sure in my coaching career that I've ever coached a team that's played back-to-back-to-back, which takes away a lot of the prep time we like to do. Our leadership within our program has got to step up."
Then, add sophomore guard Shawn Amiker (6-5, 185) and junior college transfer Kamren Belin (6-7, 235) to the starting lineup.
"He's a great defensive presence in terms of being able to rebound the basketball," Slocum said of Belin. "He's an offensively gifted kid too. He can play both sides of the floor. He has a good balance in his game."
Add Hain and 5-11, 175 sophomore guard D.J. Cole to the mix as well.
Slocum said his team is balanced, more than his other seven seasons at YSU.
"I'm not sure since I've been here that we've had eight or nine Horizon League players. I really do," Slocum said. "I think some of our freshmen have a chance to be really good."