Asked about Ashland’s projected starting five, Jason Mays didn’t bite.
“I’ll tell you more about the first seven, first eight,” the Tomcats’ second-year coach said.
Ashland returns four starters from the team that picked up the program’s first Sweet Sixteen victory since 2001 last March, adds a potentially catalyzing transfer point guard and dips a bit deeper into its bench.
The sum is a team six wins from becoming the first Kentucky program to win 2,000 games, confidently accepting the role of favorite to repeat as 16th Region Tournament champion.
“It’s different because we’ve always been the underdog ever since we were little kids,” senior Ethan Hudson said. “We started playing together in fourth grade, and we were always just smaller and less athletic than everyone, so we had to find a way to get it done, even when people didn’t expect it.”
Ashland’s way to get that done is the buzzword of positionless basketball. As it applies to the Tomcats, that means five guards and/or small forwards on the floor more often than not.
“We truly don’t have a post player on our team on the whole varsity roster,” Mays said, “so we’re having to play with a lot of pace and tempo and space — we call it ‘pace in space’ — and really create driving angles and penetrate-and-pick scenarios, and we’re gonna shoot a lot of 3s.”
Hudson, Ethan Sellars and Justin Bradley did that last season — successfully. Each shot at least 99 treys and made at least 34.6% of them. Bradley canned three of four 3-pointers in the Tomcats’ victory over Owensboro in the first round of the state tournament.
Cole Villers joined in the trey-tossing when he returned on Feb. 5 from a torn ACL sustained the previous summer. He drained five of six from beyond the arc in Ashland’s region final defeat of Boyd County, then splashed three of four against the Red Devils.
“I was trying to get back as soon as I could, because every game I was just getting more and more nervous, waiting it out,” said freshman Villers, the third brother in his family to suit up and score prolifically for the Tomcats. “Whenever I stepped on the floor, it just all clicked for me. I felt back where I should be.”
Freshman Colin Porter (7.7 ppg last season) transferred in from Elliott County. He assumes the point guard spot.
“I don’t think people in the region know how good he is,” Mays said. “He changes speeds as good as any player I’ve seen at the college or high school level in the middle third of the floor. And what that creates is mismatches where (an opposing defender) has gotta help on his penetration; now he’s got somebody open in the corner for a 3.
“How hard he pushes the ball all the time on makes and misses really has created a new dynamic for us, and it’s been good because when Cole and Selly play the point in practice, they know that that’s how they gotta play as well, so that’s made them play with a little bit more speed and tempo as well.”
Mays thinks that ripple effect could result in Ashland leading the region in scoring, despite graduating three of its top five point-totalers in points per game last season.
Hudson scored 10.4 ppg last year, followed by Sellars’ 7.9. Villers notched 10.4 in his 10 appearances and Bradley contributed 5.7.
Nolan Phillips, Ryan Atkins and Tate Ashby drew praise from Mays for their preseason work. Hunter Gillum was expected to enter the rotation when he joined the team from Ashland’s football program, which was preparing for the third round of the gridiron postseason as of this writing.
The only quality that group doesn’t bring much of is size. Bradley is Ashland’s leading returning rebounder, snaring 3.4 caroms per game last season.
“Our on-the-ball defense is gonna be good, we’re gonna be able to trap and gap and take some risks, but it’s not like we’re gonna block a lot of shots,” Mays said. “We’re probably gonna have to double the post some, things of that nature, because of our size. Our size gives us opportunities defensively, but it also creates some handicaps as well that we’re gonna have to sort of coach ourselves through.”