SEMO forward Sage Tolbert showing he can be 'really, really good'

Southeast Missouri State men's basketball coach Rick Ray, center, offers instruction to Redhawk forward Sage Tolbert during a recent practice at the Southeast Missouri State University Student Rec Center.
Tyler Graef ~ Southeast Missourian

When Southeast Missouri State forward Sage Tolbert put up seven points and five rebounds in his first collegiate game ever, and it was on the road at A-10 program Saint Louis, that was an early indication that he just may have some ability as a basketball player.

His performance ever since hasn’t lessened the confidence of his coach in what Tolbert is capable of.

“He’s by far,” fifth-year Redhawk coach Rick Ray said of Tolbert following Wednesday’s practice, “our most athletic frontline guy.”

Tolbert demonstrated that athleticism multiple times last year as a true freshman, as he scored in double figures six times and pulled down at least 10 rebounds four times.

Tolbert finished his first year having averaged over six points and five rebounds, which in Ohio Valley Conference play, there were only two other freshmen that outrebounded him throughout the season.

“He has the ability to move,” Ray continued. “He has really done a good job in the weight room with (Redhawk strength coach Tony Brutofsky) in adding weight and getting bigger and stronger.”

That strength was effective Wednesday, as he had to finish through contact on multiple occasions.

At one point, Ray had his players working in a “disadvantage drill,” which required four defenders to guard five offensive players.

Despite the numbers, Tolbert found his way through traffic for a rebound on one possession, and he later stole the ball from a guard following that player’s rebound, rose up with the ball and slammed it home.

“He’s (developed) his lower body so that he can mix it up and not get off-balance,” Ray said.

Strengthening his core and legs was a point of emphasis of Brutofsky’s this past off-season with Tolbert, who has added 10 pounds since his freshman season.

“I thought he always was strong with his upper body,” Ray said, “but now he has really improved his lower body strength. He is now able to not get pushed off-balance.”

Tolbert has shown the ability in early practices to shoot from the perimeter, but he has the potential to be a special player along the baseline, which is what Ray has spoken with Tolbert about since last season.

“Embrace what you can do,” Ray said of his advice. “I know that he can make shots and he can dribble. But he is also really, really good around the basket.

“So be really, really good around the basket first, and then expand your game.”

Tolbert struggled when facing the basket last season and finished the year with just eight assists in 628 minutes played. He also turned the ball over 63 times, which Ray said was “the worst assist-to-turnover ratio in the OVC.”

However, Ray also added the 6-foot-8 Tolbert can stretch his game, he just needs to do so with thought.

“It wasn’t that he couldn’t dribble,” Ray said. “It wasn’t because he couldn’t pass. He would try to make plays where there were no plays to be made.”

Where there will be “plays to be made” is along the baseline and in transition.

Tolbert has the size, strength, and athleticism to run the floor, crash the boards, get offensive put-backs, score on the blocks, and get “dump-downs” off penetration, and ultimately score a ton of points in those ways.

Doing those things, however, will result in getting fouled, which leads to another of Ray’s points with Tolbert.

Tolbert made just 54.7 percent of his free throws a year ago.

“He has to be an effective free throw shooter,” Ray said. “He’s going to get fouled a lot because of his athleticism, his size and his ability to finish.

“People are going to send him to the free-throw line, so we have to make those guys pay.”

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