Southwest men begins action Nov. 2

Published 11:20 am Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Finishing with a 9-13 overall record (6-8 in the MACJC South), was probably not how head coach Thomas Gray envisioned his initial season at the helm of the Southwest Bears basketball team. But, even with only three players back from his first squad, Gray seems optimistic the team can turn things around in 2015-16.

“We were very blessed to have a really good recruiting class,” Gray said, “If you rated them, I think we’d have one of the top three in the state. We’ve got multiple players at every position coming in this year and I think that’s going to help.”

“Obviously,” Gray said, “we only have three guys back who played college basketball last year (so) we don’t have that experience. We’re going to have to rely on (the returnees) and their experience early on. But, I think with this group and their ability to push through and embrace the process, I think it’s going to be a situation where the learning curve won’t be too much. As the season gets going, the freshmen will step up to where we think they are and they should be and it’ll just be a product of our recruiting the guys who will benefit this program.”

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Gray said fans can expect a much different team than last season. “Obviously, with the shot clock rule change, you’re going to see a faster game,” the second-year head man said (in one of several rule changes, the NJCAA has followed the lead of the NCAA and adopted a 30-second shot clock for the men’s game). “You think five seconds less on the shot clock is not that big of a deal, but it really is.”

“With this group,” Gray went on, “I think our tempo is going to be faster because that’s the way we recruited.” Gray said with a lack of depth last season, the tempo of the Bear’s game was slow. This year, he said, his team has depth so “we’ve got to play to that strength and hopefully lean on our opponents and wear them down by our pace of play.”

Gray said in addition to being up-tempo on offense, the Bears would look to “pick up full court in a majority of our possessions defensively. We’re going to try to force the action a little bit defensively and hopefully that defense becomes offense.”

When discussing his team, Gray said “you’ve got to talk about the three guys who are coming back (from last season)” in the persons of Lafayette Rutledge, Chris McIntosh and LeDerrius Simmons.

Rutledge (5′ 11″, 175-G-Gautier High School) was second on the team with 12.2 points per game in his freshman season. Gray said Rutledge returns as 7th in the NJCAA in terms of three-pointers made in a game (he picked up 2.8 last season) and is “just a solid overall player, offensively and defensively, (and) a guy we’re going to lean on heavily for his expertise and experience. He’s probably going to start off playing the shooting guard for a lot of games, but also has the ability to slide over and get some minutes as point guard.”

Gray said McIntosh (6′ 4″, 205-G/F-Murrah High School) “is what I call a ‘glue guy’, (he) just fills in where we need him whether it’s playing the two, the three, sliding down to the four, even going up to the point. He’s just a guy who is unselfish, is all about the team’s success (and is) a wonderful defender. He’s going to be a guy who we’re going to rely on guarding the best player from the other team.”

Simmons (5′ 8″, 160-G-McComb High School) had limited playing experience for the Bears last season. But, Gray said, he has “really improved during the off season and is going to be a guy we’re going to lean on heavily to take command of this offense and really setting up our defense as well. Just like Chris (McIntosh), he’s a guy who can really give the opponents a hard time, especially when the point guard’s bringing the ball up.”

Continuing his discussion of his players, Gray said Derrick Thompkins (6′ 1″-195-G-Wayne County High School) “is a guy who was here last year (but sat out as a redshirt) who kind of knows what we want to do and knows how we are.” Gray said Thompkins would be relied on for his knowledge of the team’s system.

Among the newcomers, Terrell Miller (6′ 8″, 250-F-Jacksonville, FL) is probably “the center of it all” said Gray. Miller, who transferred from a Florida juco, is “kind of the center of our offense, a power forward who plays all the positions in the post for us, but is really just an immediate mismatch (for opponents). He’s gotten noticed by a lot of scouts from across the country because of his versatility.”

Gray said he felt the Bears picked up one of the state’s best point guards in the person of Guy Johnson (6′, 190-Ridgeland High School) “a guy who led his team to a 5A state championship game (although they lost to Callaway).” Gray said Johnson scored 11 points in the first quarter of the game despite “being guarded by Malik Newman, one of the best-known players in the country” and another player. “He’s a guy we expect to jump in the mix right away,” Gray said.

According to Gray, the Bears have a “plethora of guys” at shooting guard/small forward including a local product he is very excited to have. “Emanuel Thompson (6′ 4″, 205-G/F) is a guy who won two state championships at McComb High School, a guy who has really embraced the pre-season process,” Gray said. “He looks the part (and) plays the part. This up-tempo brand of basketball is something he’s going to thrive in.”

Also expected to do well in the Bears’ up-tempo style of play are guards Rodrick Sikes (6′ 1″, 170-St. Martin High School) and Mario Doyle (6′ 1″, 220-Warren Central High School). Gray said he thought Sikes “was the best player on the Mississippi coast last year (and) is a guy who thrives in up-tempo style of offense. He has a lethal mid-range shot (and) can get to the rim.”

Doyle “can really stretch it out,” Gray commented and “we saw a lot in our scrimmages this pre-season of his ability to knock down open shots when guys drive and kick it to him.”

Gray said Bryce Baker (6′ 5″, 205-Hillcrest Christian High School) “is a guy who I think is going to be an integral part at probably three positions.” According to the coach, Baker “has really stepped up and been a surprise in the pre-season. He plays as unselfish as anybody on the team. He’s also a guy who not only sacrifices himself defensively, but is very unselfish passing the ball (and is) one of the best shooters on the team.”

Gray was full of praise for freshmen Sean Smith (6′ 7″, 190-F-Seville, Spain) and James Hawthorne (6′ 7″, 195-F-Prentiss High School) who, he says, are players whose “potential is just being tapped. When you watch these guys play, you can immediately see the potential they have. In this offense, you’re really going to see them display their skills from an offensive and defensive standpoint.”

The Bears’ coaching staff is also excited about the addition of freshmen forwards Joseph Coleman (6′ 5″, 200-Forest Hill High School) and Ben Howze (6′ 5″, 220-Jacksonville, FL). Gray said Coleman “is a guy who fought through injuries in his high school career and is really playing well. We expect him to make an impact this year as well as Ben.” Howze is a transfer from an Alabama juco.

“We’ve been blessed with size,” Gray went on, “been blessed with guys who can shoot, blessed with guys who can pick up the pressure defensively. All that being said, obviously, we’re very excited moving forward into this year.”

Asked for his thoughts on the South Division and where he looks for the Bears to be at the end of the season, Gray said, “Obviously, I want to see the Bears on top. We want to see the Bears win the South Division (and) I think we have the ability to” do that.

Looking closer, Gray said “In the South, I know a lot of people are saying it runs through Pearl River, the defending state champions, who hardly lost anybody. I thought Jones County had a really good recruiting class (and) East Central has a lot returning. They (East Central) were a fantastic team last year.”

But, Gray said, he is also “looking towards Co-Lin, Meridian, Hinds and Gulf Coast. Those guys are going to be tough as well. I think from top to bottom, like people are saying, it’s going to be the toughest this South Division has ever been. I think we’re going to see competitive games night in and night out and we’re not going to see any one team that’s a pushover. We’re going to expect to have a fight on our hands every time we step in the gym, whether it’s here in Summit or on the road.”

“Our goal,” Gray concluded, “is to be on top at the end of the day. But, that climb and that fight and that task are not going to be an easy one.”

Joining Gray on the sidelines once again are second-year assistant coaches Andy Farrell and Michael DuBose.

The team gets the season underway on Monday, Nov. 2, when they host the William Carey University JV squad. Tipoff is set for 7:00.