Written by Shane Thomas, Staff Writer
In basketball, slow and steady no longer wins the race.
The game has morphed into a more athletic, free-flowing style where positions serve as mere placeholders and versatility, depth and perimeter shooting now rule the day.
The Valdosta State Blazers are in the process of a makeover, a look they’ve dubbed “#WinningFast”.
A mantra first conceived by new assistant coach Jason Mays, #WinningFast signals a revised return to the run-and-gun style the Blazers enjoyed in 2009-10 when they scored a school-record 2,666 points and made their most-recent NCAA Tournament appearance.
“In the offseason when I evaluated myself and what we’ve been doing, I felt like we got slow,” Blazers head coach Mike Helfer said. “We’d like to play a lot faster. Today’s player wants to play fast so that’s went over pretty well. At the defensive end, I want to be more aggressive maybe even picking up 94 feet. I think our personnel fits that style of play.”
Ramping up their defensive intensity is a great place to start.
Despite having the Gulf South Conference’s leading shot-blocker in Colin Cook, opponents shot a league-best 47.3 percent against the Blazers last season. The Blazers also ranked near the bottom of the GSC in points allowed at 80.7 points per game.
“You’ve got to have depth to [play an up-tempo style],” Helfer, who is entering his 11th year on the VSU sideline, said. “That’s one thing we bring to the table. We have a lot of good players, I think, that can play that style. Hopefully, it’s just going to be a numbers game—do we have more soldiers in the fight than they do. If we do, then I think we can be really effective with it.”
Newcomers Justin Simon (Shelton State CC) and Savannah State transfer Saadiq Muhammad give the Blazers two glass-eating, high-energy players solidifying their front line. Following Monday’s practice, Helfer was excited when discussing his new big men.
“I haven’t coached two big guys who play as hard as they do at the same time,” Helfer said of the duo. “It’s amazing how hard they get after it. Physically, they’re both gifted. They’re not satisfied with that. They want to become as good of a player as they can. They’re fun to coach, they’re great kids. I’m just happy they’re in the program.”
However, not everyone has such a rosy outlook on these Blazers.
In a poll of league coaches, the Blazers were picked to finish ninth in the GSC ahead of only Shorter and West Florida.
Helfer maintains he will not entertain the noise as his team prepares for the coming season.
“We haven’t talked about it all and I don’t plan on talking about it,” Helfer said. “Each year, especially at our level, our league had an enormous amount of graduated seniors and some kids transferred out that were critical players on teams that I don’t think everybody knows about. At the beginning of the [season], everybody is 0-0. The standings will take care of themselves at the end of the year.”
Senior guard Blake Justice was miffed by the ranking, but expressed confidence in his team’s potential to quiet the doubters.
“You can look at it two ways,” Justice said. “It’s disrespectful to the returners. Obviously we didn’t have a great year last year, but we’ve got some good guys coming back. To the new guys, [the coaches] don’t know who they are so they can’t really take it upon themselves.
“The way this team has come together, the chemistry we’ve got, the way we’re going to play, I think a lot of people will be shocked at the outcome of the year.”
Justice was the Blazers’ second-leading scorer last season at 12 points per game, but battled inconsistency and injury as the season wound down. Entering his senior season, Justice has dropped weight and looks poised for a breakout season.
“I dropped probably 10 to 15 pounds,” Justice, who has played at 190 pounds in his first two seasons, said. “I’m lighter on my feet. Stamina is there, there’s no fatigue. I really concentrated on my defense. I worked on my ball-handling and being able to create and make reads. The offense we’re running will benefit me and the up-tempo style we’ll play will help with the shape I’m in now.”
Last season, the Blazers were often an enigma. Slow starts, failure to do finish off defensive possessions with rebounds and losing battles for 50-50 balls were a big reason the Blazers were just 5-8 in games decided by six points or fewer.
With heightened emphasis on disposition, Helfer expects his team to be mentally and physically tougher throughout the season.
“Whenever you play with an intensity, with an urgency and excitement,” Helfer explained. “I think you’re going to wear teams down. Over the course of a season, some teams lose that energy and excitement. If you’re used to it from Day 1, you’re still doing it February. Hopefully, that will become a conditioned factor for us that regardless of what game, what day, what month it is, we’re going to play the same way.”
The Blazers open their season Nov. 13 against Fort Valley State at The P.E. Complex.