By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large
Doug Davalos said he won’t draw any conclusions about his Texas State men’s basketball team based on its 104-81 home opening win against Huston-Tillotson Wednesday night at Strahan Coliseum, which means the issues with his team haven’t changed.
“The issues are always going to be about defense,” Davalos said.
As the Bobcats campaign to make themselves good enough at least for inclusion in the Southland Conference Tournament this year, the same theme presented itself at Wednesday night’s glorified practice session against an NAIA team with only one player taller than 6-foot-4 and no one taller than 6-6.
If the Bobcats are going to press and run, they’ve got to press with more bite, recover more quickly when opponents beat the press and be able to lock into a stable half-court defense when the game slows down. Even a 1-4 sub-NCAA Huston-Tillotson team found holes in the Texas State defense.
“We’re not even close to where we want to be on defense,” Texas State senior forward Brandon Bush said.
Too often trying to compensate, Texas State fouled the over-matched Rams 26 times as the visitors walked out with 30-11 advantage in trips to the free throw line. As Davalos observed, it’s almost unheard of for the visiting team to take three times as many free throws as the home team.
The Bobcats are 2-1 after ending last season 13-16. Taking off from last year’s performance, Texas State is a risk-reward basketball team that could flip into a contender by making free throws and improving its inside game, particularly on defense.
The exterior defense produced a bit last year, leading the Southland Conference by producing 9.4 steals and 20 turnovers per game. The Bobcats ranked third in the league in three-point field goal defense. Opponents took more three-point attempts against Texas State than anyone else in the league last year, but they only succeeded 31.5 percent of the time (179 for 568).
It’s worth noting that Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin finished one-two in three-point field goal defense at 30.9 percent and 31.3 percent, respectively, because they also finished one-two in overall field goal defense at 38.7 percent and 39.6 percent, respectively. It’s worth noting, because look what happened to Texas State, which was third in three-point defense – the Bobcats fell all the way to tenth in overall field goal defense at 47.0 percent, because opponents made a generous 54.4 percent of their two-point tries (650 of 1,194).
Offensively, the Bobcats led the league in scoring last year despite missing more shots than anybody. Again, the team lost traction inside. The Bobcats finished fourth in three-point field goal percentage (35.8), but fell all the way to ninth in overall field goal shooting at 41.6 percent because they made only 44.6 percent of their shots inside the arc (581 for 1,304).
The Bobcats also went to the free-throw line way more than anyone else, 850 times. Conference tournament champion Texas-Arlington was next with 109 fewer free throws despite playing four more games. However, the Bobcats squandered this major source of points by hitting only 65.1 percent, the league’s lowest figure.
Texas State’s league-leading scoring average reached 83.6 points per game, while its defense finished at the bottom of the league by allowing 84.8 points per game. Because interior play could produce the most improvement in those numbers, it points to John Rybak, Ty Gough and Manu Bidias A’ Moute as the three players who could make the biggest difference for this team in 2008-09.
Rybak is a 6-5 light forward, a newcomer from Akron of the Mid-American Conference, where he received little playing time for two years after starring in the Milwaukee high school ranks. Rybak scored 1,691 points at Nathan Hale High School, pretty good in Wisconsin, where 25 games is a long high school season.
Offensively, Rybak appears to be strictly a wing player. In three games at Texas State, 16 of his 21 shots came from three-point range. He made his first five three-pointers of the year Wednesday, hitting five of seven (six of ten overall) as he led the Bobcats with 17 points in 23 minutes.
Defensively, though, Rybak is going to have to guard a forward. Futhermore, Rybak is going to have to do it within a much faster orientation to the game, because he has played half-court pattern basketball for most of his life. But he’s confident he can make the adjustment to Davalos’ run-and-gun style, and he is kicking five rebounds in his 23 minutes per game.
“I feel like one of my best attributes is toughness,” Rybak said.
Gough is a 6-10 sophomore from Pharr San Juan Alamo who struggled a bit as a freshman. Last year, Gough played about 16 minutes per game and made only 40.8 percent of his shots (71 of 174). Now, he’s the starting center.
In the two opening games in Hawaii, Gough averaged 12.5 minutes, four points and two rebounds. Gough showed Wednesday night that he’d be quite a force in Huston-Tillotson’s Red River Conference, scoring 12 points with 14 rebounds and four blocked shots in 21 minutes. If Gough can become a little more than half that player at the Southland Conference level, he makes this team a lot better.
“I’d love to see him block shots,” Davalos said. “He had four blocks tonight, and that’s a presence we have not had in this program.”
Perhaps the most interesting presence in this program now, however, is Bidias A’ Moute, whose 6-8, 240-pound body would not look out of place in the Big 12. Bidias A’ Moute gives this team an efficient power forward on the offensive end who might be able to work for those tough shots.
Check out Bidias A’ Moute’s line from the first three games, covering 46 minutes, which is barely more than one full game plus an overtime – 39 points with 15-for-25 field goal shooting, 16 rebounds (including seven on the offensive end) and five steals. Problem is that he wouldn’t have lasted 46 minutes of such a game because he also has eight fouls, and let’s just say the jury isn’t altogether convinced by his defense.
“The thing with him is practice,” Davalos said. “Practice says a lot about determining playing time. You can’t just show up for the test and think you’re going to do well if you don’t also do the work in the classroom.”
The Bobcats already have one experienced and productive wing player in Bush, the 6-7 All-SLC senior who has topped the team in scoring and rebounding for the last two years. And the backcourt appears to be in shape. Senior shooting guard Brent Benson is off to a good start, averaging 17.7 points in 25 minutes per game. Point guard Corey Jefferson has 18 assists against six turnovers through three outings.
Texas State also has a few interesting young players, front and back. Camaron Johnson, a 6-7 sophomore forward, has 19 points and ten rebounds in 29 minutes. Sophomore guard Ryan White has eight assists in 32 minutes, but also nine turnovers. As the year moves along, the emergence of a bench rotation will tell more about how those players will contribute.
However, the keys are the three players up front – Gough, Rybak and Bidias A’ Moute. Gough has a year under his belt, while Rybak and Bidias A’ Moute are juniors brought in for immediate help. If they can help immediately, then this team could a lot better than anyone thinks come conference tournament time, and certainly better than Wednesday night.