Southeast Missouri State men's basketball opens practice with Rick Ray's "most talented team" to date

Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Southeast Missouri State coach Rick Ray, left, shouts to players as they scrimmage at the team's first practice Tuesday at the Show Me Center.

In his three seasons at Southeast Missouri State, men's basketball coach Rick Ray has had his share of talented players. Antonius Cleveland played under Ray for two years and is currently in the NBA with the Chicago Bulls. Denzel Mahoney earned recognition as an Ohio Valley Conference Freshman of the Year and All-OVC first-team pick.

Those two are gone, but when Ray looks at this year's roster, he sees his most complete team yet with talent littered across the roster thanks to a solid freshman class and some key returners.

The fourth-year coach got the first look at how all the pieces will jell when Southeast held its first official practice Tuesday morning at the Show Me Center.

Southeast Missouri State basketball head coach Rick Ray, far right, reaches to blow his whistle as red shirt freshman Khalil Cuffee, center right, traps senior Donnie Lewis, front right, at half-court during the team's first practice of the season Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, at the Show Me Center in Cape Girardeau.

"I'm really excited about our team," Ray said. "I think this is probably the most talented team we've had from top to bottom. Now, our only problem is getting these guys some experience."

The Redhawks have five true freshmen on the roster, and nine of the 14 players eligible to compete this season have never played at the NCAA Division I level. That's a product of the roster turnover this offseason with four players transferring away from the program, including starters Mahoney and Justin Carpenter. Another starter, Daniel Simmons, graduated from that 14-17 team.

Ledarrius Brewer is one of the two returning starters after averaging 14.5 points per game on 42 percent shooting as a freshman and earning a spot on the OVC All-Newcomer team. While he was sick Tuesday and sat out practice, he'll be joined in the backcourt by senior point guard Jonathan Dalton, who started 30 of 31 games last season.

"The talent is there," Dalton said. "It's going to be an exciting year, period, for everybody, returners and new guys. The main thing is making sure everybody is comfortable, and we work on jelling and being energized throughout the whole year."

With so many new faces, Ray and his staff plan to keep things simple early. The Redhawks have 30 practices and an Oct. 27 exhibition game against Southwest Baptist before the season opener Nov. 6 at Saint Louis.

For now, Ray wants the players to bring energy and enthusiasm, especially with early morning practices. The rest will come as the season progresses.

"The number one thing we want to do as coaches is we want to keep things simple," Ray said. "We want our guys more concerned about playing hard, playing tough and playing smart, so we don't want to inundate them with too much information.

Southeast Missouri State red shirt freshman Khalil Cuffee pulls in a rebound during the team's first practice of the season Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, at the Show Me Center in Cape Girardeau.

"Now, they've got to make sure when we're teaching that things carry over. I think sometimes like we do a great job in drill work, but now we start playing five-on-five and playing up and down; hey, we did that drill work, and we want that to carry over to five-on-five, full-court basketball."

After a postseason ban due to low Academic Progress Rate scores, the Redhawks are again eligible for the OVC Tournament, along with national postseason tournaments.

The problem now is replacing Carpenter and Mahoney, who transferred to Creighton, as Southeast returns two of its top six scorers from last season.

"We've done a good job recruiting," Ray said. "The second thing is we have to make sure we develop our guys, and then also, we've got to become a better defensive team. Offensively, I think we'll be fine, but if we want to make up for some of the scoring punch we lost, we can't just make it up on the scoring end. We got to make it up on the defensive end."

After sitting out a season, guard Skyler Hogan is eligible to play. The sharp-shooting guard averaged 18.8 points per game and was a 42.8 percent 3-point shooter at Embry-Riddle in the 2016-17 season.

Khalil Cuffee also will provide backcourt depth after redshirting last season. Freshmen Alex Caldwell, Jordan Love and Nygal Russell, plus junior college transfer Oscar Kao and senior Donnie Lewis, also are competing for time at the guard spots.

After finishing next-to-last in the 12-team OVC in rebounding margin last season, the Redhawks brought in a couple big men in 6-foot-8 freshman Sage Tolbert and 6-7 freshman Gabe McGlothan.

Senior center Mark Laros is also back after averaging 15 minutes per game last season in 27 appearances, and forward Isaiah Gable played in 15 games as a freshman.

"We got a lot of new guys, but I really like the way they've been practicing and stuff," Laros said. "I see them in the gym all the time. So I'm sure it doesn't really matter that they're new. They're going to work hard, and they're going to fit right in."

Already, the Redhawks are noticing the difference on the court.

"It helps the guards most definitely when it comes to pressuring the ball and jamming, not having to worry about getting beat because you know you got that second line of defense back there that's lengthy, and you got athletic guys back there," Dalton said. "It's also going to help us with rebounding because we did struggle with that last year."

Local face

Saxony Lutheran High School graduate Jack Lake is on SEMO's roster this year as a redshirt senior. The 6-8 center played three seasons at Fontbonne University, averaging a team-high 12.3 points per game in 2016-17 and appearing in four games last season.

The Jackson native was a two-time Class 3 all-district performer in high school and also played baseball for the Crusaders.

It's the first time SEMO has started a season with a player from Southeast Missouri on the roster since Ray's first season in 2015-16.

Lake is also the first Missouri native on the roster since Crystal City grad Eli Sample played in 2016-17.

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