Southeast forward Sage Tolbert hasn't endured any 'sophomore slump'

Southeast Missouri State sophomore forward Sage Tolbert (23) goes up for a basket against Tennessee State recently at the Show Me Center.
Tyler Graef ~ Southeast Missourian

When a men’s basketball program has lost 11 consecutive games against NCAA Division I competition, it takes a bit of research to find any nugget of positivity. However, something that is clearly a plus within the Southeast Missouri State program this season has been the continued development of sophomore forward Sage Tolbert.

“Yes,” veteran Redhawk coach Rick Ray said when asked if Tolbert is better this year than last, “but he could be better.”

The Redhawks (4-15, 0-6 Ohio Valley Conference) will visit SIUE (4-15, 1-5) today at 7:30 p.m. and any shot at a victory will hinge on a solid game from Tolbert.

The 6-foot-8 forward has made significant strides offensively from his freshman season and Ray has rewarded him with playing time.

After averaging under 20 minutes per game in league play a year ago, Tolbert is on the court for nearly 28 minutes per game this season.

“We’re on him,” Ray said, “and it’s not because we think he’s a bad kid or he’s not playing hard, but it is the potential that you see.”

Take, for example, Saturday’s overtime loss against league power Murray State.

Tolbert connected on 6 of his 7 shots and finished with 16 points and nine rebounds. He also banged in his first two 3-pointers of the season, which Ray referred to as “karma” working in favor of Tolbert.

“Those two 3s that he made,” Ray said following the game, “they went in because he deserved for those to go in because of his effort on the other end.”

Tolbert has increased his rebounding this season nearly two boards per game and has led Southeast nine times on the glass.

“He’s (given) effort in chasing down offensive rebounds and keeping balls alive,” Ray said. “He’s been physical. It’s karma that those 3s went in. It has nothing to do with the fact that he’s been working on his 3-pointers. It had to do with the fact that he played an all-out, flat-out war.”

Ray has preached physicality to his players all season and the message often hasn’t gotten through.

The Redhawks rank 10th out of 12 teams in rebounding margin and defensive rebounding percentage within the OVC, but that wasn’t the case against the Racers, who generally outrebound teams by eight per game.

Southeast actually outrebounded Murray State 32-31.

“(Tolbert) didn’t let those guys take the fight to him,” Ray said, “he hit them first.”

The Redhawks have struggled all season at the offensive end, but have climbed to rank fifth in field goal percentage in the league after six games. A big reason for that improvement is the play of Tolbert.

After shooting 46 percent in league play a year ago, Tolbert ranks third in the league at 64.5 percent this season.

His scoring average has also grown from 6.3 points per game to 9.5.

Another key area of Tolbert’s development has been in his ball handling.

A year ago, he turned the ball over 11 times for every assist that he registered.

“I never did the research exactly,” Ray said, “but it might have been the worst assist-to-turnover ratio in the history of the league.”

Tolbert has grown in that area significantly and is only throwing the ball away twice for every assist so far in league play this season.

Whereas he committed a mistake once every 10 minutes a year ago, he does so just once every 15 minutes played this year.

Agnew helps

A key component to having the “fight” necessary to compete that Ray mentioned is having junior center Darrious Agnew back on the court.

After injuring his knee in late December and sitting out four games, the 6-foot-8 athlete had a very solid game against Murray State.

“We aren’t in that game without Darrious,” Ray said afterward.

Agnew committed five fouls and missed 6 of 7 shots, but he was physical enough to shoot four free throws (hitting all of them) and he grabbed five rebounds in 22 minutes.

Ray has praised Agnew often this season for having the right attitude towards his development and he said that continued even when Agnew had to sit out.

“Darrious did everything he could as far as rehabbing his injury to get back on the court,” Ray said. “He really handled that the right way.”

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