Bobcat boys basketball brings focus to defense

As soon as the final buzzer sounded on the Marshalltown boys basketball team’s season last year, there has been a concerted effort by players and coaches to improve in one specific area of the court.

Finishing at 3-19 last season, the Bobcats struggled mightily in two areas: defense and turnovers. Marshalltown was outscored on average by 26.2 points per contest, the second-worst mark in Class 4A, and head coach Scott Smith said that’s something the boys have been focusing on fixing heading into the 2016-17 season.

“It really started last spring, I really think after the season was over we really had a lot of individual meetings with players and team meetings and the kids really committed to work in the offseason,” Smith said after practice Wednesday. “From the spring doing their own workouts to some AAU ball to summer league and team camps and open gyms, I really think you will see the fruits of their labor pay off for all the work they’ve done.”

It helps that the Bobcats return quite a few players from last year’s squad for their next campaign, including leading scorer Luke Appel and second-leading scorer Josh Melde.

Smith said the new defensive focus has started at the top with both of his senior returners, and he’s encouraged with the work those two have put into changing their philosophy.

“Luke is a returning all-conference player and he’s always been a great offensive player, but I think defensively he has made tremendous strides, as have most of our guys,” Smith said. “They have really committed to that end. Josh Melde, who was a starter for us last year, we knew he could score and he had some good games last year but again I think his commitment to the defensive end has been really contagious.”

With Appel and Melde carrying much of the offensive load, the Bobcats still need players around them to step up, and Smith said the talent doesn’t drop off after his top two.

He specifically said his guard play should seen an uptick this season with junior Bennett O’Hare and sophomore Austin Shomo handling the ball.

“One of the things we really struggled with last year is taking care of the basketball and we’ve got a couple guards who can really fill those spots this year in Bennett O’Hare, who had a great sophomore year last year, and Austin Shomo, who is a sophomore this year,” he said. “Neither of them has played varsity, but from what they’ve shown in the offseason and preseason, we will have some growing pains like anything else and they aren’t the biggest guys in the world but they really have a high basketball IQ.”

What the Bobcats have truly needed, Smith said, is a guy who can come in and give maximum effort when called upon, and he said that’s an area he truly feels blessed this season with players like his son, Jacob Smith, and a few other new faces to Bobcat basketball.

“You have a kid in Sam Irwin who didn’t come out last year but is a great athlete and whether he starts or not he knows his role. He’s a great athlete, very competitive and he can be a defensive stopper for us,” Smith said. “Jacob played a lot of minutes for us last year and he’s just kind of a good all-around defender. A good glue guy that’s a good passer and an unselfish player. You put all those guys together with some role players like Sam Irwin, Conner Beaty, Sunday Arou and Reid Nenning, then you can start looking at some different rotations and get some things going in the right direction.”

Finding those rotations and chemistry on the court is what the early games in a season are all about, and Smith said this first game at Ankeny on Friday night is no exception. He said, though the team is very close-knit and has good chemistry, they are ready to get out and face someone in another jersey for the first time this season.

“We are ready for a game, it’s getting a little chippy in practice,” Smith said with a grin. “It’s getting chippy out there in a good way because they are competitive. It’s like your family, you get a little irritated with each other and after a while it’s good to play somebody else.”

Ankeny has already started its season, falling close to Hoover in a road contest 59-57.

“They have an advantage of having played a game, in fact they really had Hoover on the ropes up 11 with a few minutes left,” Smith said. “Hoover of course is a great program and they only lost by two at Hoover, so that just tells you how good they are. They move the ball well, they shoot the ball well, they get out and guard really tough.”

Smith said what he wants to see when his Bobcats take the court against the Hawks is a true commitment to the team’s new defensive mantra.

“Our identity has to be defense, defense, defense. Solid possessions at that end, rebound and then get good shots,” he said. “If they do those things and play hard, smart and together, that’s all you can ask for as a coach and the wins will take care of themselves.”

The Bobcat boys travel to Ankeny on Friday to start their 2017-18 season, with the game set for a 7:45 p.m. tip.