Big step forward marked Year 2 under Ray for Southeast Missouri State men's basketball
The 2016-17 brand of Southeast Missouri State men's basketball will ultimately be defined by how it progressed from the campaign that preceded it.
Heading into Rick Ray's second year at the helm, the Redhawks were predicted to finish last in the Ohio Valley Conference West Division after limping to a league-worst 5-24 record in 2015-16, but 11 newcomers, including two freshmen starters and seven junior college transfers, helped catapult Southeast to a turnaround season that surprised many.
The Redhawks finished the year with a 15-18 mark and were 9-7 in league play. They swept Murray State for the first time in the program's Division I era and were within a game of clinching a first-ever division title.
But Ray hasn't spent much time reflecting on the success his program achieved in Year 2. Since the end of the season, he and his coaching staff have been busy hitting the recruiting trail in search of more talent to add to the mix. Ray acknowledges the progress that's been made but knows there's still plenty of work to be done.
"I've really just been looking more toward the future and trying to figure out a way to put together this team for us to continue to get better every year," Ray said. "... Obviously our personnel improved, but along with our personnel, I think the individual player development improved."
After missing out on the OVC Tournament in Ray's first season as coach, Southeast returned in 2016-17 as the No. 5 seed. The Redhawks erased a 14-point deficit against eighth-seeded Tennessee State in the opener, as freshman Tahj Eaddy hit a game-winning 3-pointer to deliver a 78-75 win in overtime. Freshman Denzel Mahoney scored a career-high 34 points in the victory.
In the second round, Southeast was bounced from the conference tournament in a 74-51 loss versus fourth-seeded Jacksonville State, which went on to defeat No. 1 Belmont in the semifinals and No. 2 UT Martin in the championship game to secure its first-ever berth in the NCAA Tournament.
When it comes to his final analysis, Ray takes pride in how his team was able to turn the tide in several statistical categories, all of which allowed the Redhawks to become more consistent.
In 2015-16, Southeast ranked third-to-last in the OVC in assist-to-turnover ratio (0.89) but was able to improve to fifth in the league (1.11) in 2016-17. The Redhawks were also much more efficient from 3-point range, shooting 36.7 percent (fourth in the OVC) in 2016-17 after shooting 30 percent (last in the OVC) a year prior.
"One of our biggest bugaboos last year was our inability to take care of the basketball, and if you don't have a team that can take care of the ball, then it really hurts you, not just on the offensive end but on the defensive end because you don't have a chance to set your defense," Ray said. "I thought our ability to take care of the basketball, our turnover/assist ratio, really improved. ... Not just our ability to make shots but also our decision-making -- taking the right shots -- really improved for us."
Ray said his team still left plenty to be desired on the defensive end.
SEMO's offense increased its points-per-game average 7.5 points from the year before while its defense held opponents to 3.0 ppg less. The Redhawks finished second-to-last in the OVC in field-goal percentage defense (47.8 percent) and were ninth in 3-point field goal percentage defense (36.7 percent).
On several occasions throughout the season, Ray believes his team's offense was good enough to disguise a porous defense. But in order for his program to take the next step, Ray said he wants his players to improve as individual defenders.
"I think we relied on our help (defense) way too much," Ray said. "I thought at the beginning of the season that we were really bad at defending the 3-point line, and the biggest reason we were bad defending the 3-point line was because we relied on help defense. That allowed people to get off 3-point attempts.
"We've got to become better individual defenders on the perimeter in particular, especially in our ball-screen defense, and then also in the post. I thought our perimeter guys relied way too much on our post guys to defend ball-screen action and to help on drives when we've got to be able to guard a guy one-on-one by ourselves more."
Senior Antonius Cleveland led Southeast with 16.6 ppg to go along with 5.1 rebounds per game, cementing his status as one of the greatest players to wear a Redhawk uniform. The four-year starter was a first-team All-OVC selection after finishing 54.3 percent from the field.
The 6-foot-4 Mahoney was a welcome addition to the Redhawks' lineup after starting all 33 games along with Cleveland. He was named OVC Freshman of the Year and was a second-team All-OVC pick after averaging 14.9 ppg, including a team-leading 16.6 ppg in conference play, and 4.2 rpg while shooting 37.7 percent from beyond the arc.
Along with Cleveland, senior Trey Kellum, a 6-7 forward, and senior Jamaal Calvin, a 6-1 guard, will also graduate from the program. Kellum averaged 11.5 ppg and a team-high 6.4 rpg, while Calvin scored 6.9 ppg and was a 41.2-percent shooter from long range.
Cleveland's defensive prowess and scoring ability, Calvin's vocal leadership and excitement for the game and Kellum's ability to score with his back to the basket will all be difficult for Southeast to replicate next season, according to Ray.
"Each one of those guys brought something there that really contributed to our team's success," Ray said.
Ray expects Mahoney and Eaddy to benefit from their first complete offseason at the Division I level.
For most of the season, Mahoney played a non-traditional role as a power forward, utilizing athleticism that presented matchup problems for opposing teams. With more height expected in next year's rotation and another offseason for 6-7 forward Milos Vranes, Ray said Mahoney could transition to playing smaller, but only if it's something that will allow the team to succeed.
"The thing that we've got to do is we've got to make sure that we put our best team on the court and not worry about positions," Ray said. "We want to have the opportunity to play Milos and Denzel together on the court more. ... The one thing you've got to make sure you do is you don't want to mess with the recipe that helped you succeed.
"Denzel was a huge matchup problem for the other team when he plays that 4-spot. He's going to continue to play that spot, but we'd like to have the opportunity -- not just for him but also for Milos -- to put those two guys on the court together and let Denzel play in the 3-spot and Milos play in the 4-spot."
Southeast added three players during the early signing period in November, as 6-8 center Olawale Odofin, 6-4 guard Khalil Coffee and 6-8 power forward Justin Carpenter each signed a National Letter of Intent.
Carpenter helped lead Mt. Carmel High School to a Class 2A runner-up finish in Illinois and is someone Ray feels confident about in the post heading into next season.
"He brings a type of skill level and is just a fundamentally-skilled guy that we think can come in and help us," Ray said. "It'll just be about the adjustment, especially at that center spot, because of the physicality. You can make that adjustment in the backcourt a little easier. ... But it's hard sometimes when you don't have the physicality at that 4-spot or that 5-spot to come in and be a success on the court right away because you're just playing against guys that are bigger and stronger than you."
Southeast should also receive a boost from the return of three players who were sidelined due to injury.
Joel Angus III, a 6-7 forward, received a medical redshirt after undergoing season-ending hip surgery for a bone spur that caused a tear in his labrum. Angus was SEMO's second-leading scorer in 2015-16, averaging 10.5 ppg and 5.9 rpg.
Ray Kowalski sat out the entire season as a redshirt freshman while healing from surgery on a meniscus tear, and junior Dondre Duffus, a transfer from St. Petersburg College, sat out after starting three of the first five games of the season.
Southeast had no choice but to overcome its youth and inexperience in 2016-17, and Ray credits his seniors for leading the way.
"They were able to kind of shelter us and get us through those turbulent times there," Ray said. "I think any team is going to go through adversity. ... It's that adversity and the ability to deal with that adversity and overcome it that makes you a good team, so I was really proud of the fact that our guys didn't wallow in self-pity when we had the injuries and when we had the guys come up ineligible and things like that. That shows maturity."