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With big guys gone, Bobcats going guard-heavy

Two years ago, Phil Campbell rode the one-two punch of post players Noah Williams and Hayden Copeland all the way to Hanceville, finishing just a few points shy of reaching the Elite Eight. Williams graduated that May, but last season the Bobcats won 17 games and reached the sub-regional round behind another dynamic duo in the post, with 6’3 senior Thomas Baker sliding in next to the 6’5 Copeland.

Now Copeland and Baker are both gone as well, necessitating a changing of the guard for head coach Brett Thomas and the ‘Cats—with the emphasis on guard.

“We’re not gonna be able to pound it down low and get buckets that way,” said senior Peyton Thomas, a 6’1 wing who earned first-team All-County honors from the Free Press last season after averaging a team-high 15.8 points per game. “Thomas and Copeland could both just back someone down and shoot over them and get an easy bucket. We’re gonna have to work a little harder for it this year. We’ll have to be a better shooting team.

“We’ll more than likely start four guards.”

Thomas has the size and strength to play in the paint, and rugged 6’2 senior Brody Nix should also be ready to help fill the void down low after averaging 3.3 points per game on 50-percent shooting off the bench last season. But there’s no doubt about it—Phil Campbell will be a more perimeter-oriented team this year, and probably a more up-tempo one as well.

“We’ll try and get up and down and get those transition buckets, as Coach Thomas says. We’ll almost have to out-shoot people, I would say,” said Peyton Thomas, who knocked down 21 threes last season and shot 47 percent from the field overall. “If [opposing teams] go into a zone, we don’t have big guys who can sit down there and go over someone else’s big man and score. Copeland and Thomas could do that, but not a whole lot of people had Copelands and Thomases last year.

“We’ll have to be able to shoot.”

If this year’s Bobcats are indeed a little less ground-and-pound and a little more run-and-gun, that should suit senior guard Rhett Benford just fine. Prior to sustaining a knee injury on December 23 of last year, Benford was giving opponents fits with his frenetic style of play on both ends of the floor and averaging 11.8 points per game; he gutted it out the rest of the season but was clearly hampered by the bum wheel, scoring a total of just 49 points over his final 11 games.

A full-speed Benford would be a handful in the open floor and a major catalyst for Phil Campbell’s more perimeter-oriented game.

“He looks almost a hundred percent,” Peyton Thomas said of Benford, who hit 16 threes last season, came up with 31 steals on the defensive end and shot a solid 68 percent from the foul line. “He’s not back to what he was before he got hurt, but he’s definitely better than what he was when he was trying to play through it last year. He’s getting quicker. He’s almost back to normal. It will take him more time, but he’s getting there.

“He’s our snowbird guy. We catch the ball and throw it out to him, because he can get to the other end faster than all the rest of us.”

As Benford continues to round into form, Thomas is happy to be healthy heading into basketball season for a change. In each of the previous two years, nagging leg injuries from the football field either limited his minutes in the early going or sidelined him entirely for the first few games.

“I finished the game [at Hackleburg] Thursday night and then actually practiced basketball Friday afternoon—without any injuries, except for a few bumps and bruises,” Thomas said. “As far as any actual injuries, I didn’t have any, so I was happy for that. It’s the first time since the ninth grade that I haven’t had an injury to start basketball season.”

Having Thomas at full strength right out of the gate this season—which tips off next Friday, November 17 against Tharptown—could be huge for the Bobcats, who simply don’t have another offensive weapon quite like him. Thomas topped the 20-point mark eight times last year while also leading the team in assists and practically living at the foul line, where he made 172 out of a whopping 251 attempts (68 percent).

Poised to surpass the 1,000-point mark for his varsity career [he’s currently at 970], Thomas will be asked to carry an even heavier load in his final season. He’ll be joined in the guard-heavy lineup by Benford and fellow senior Joe Hardy, who could be primed for a breakout after averaging 4.6 points and knocking down eight threes in 17 games last season. Guards Daniel Smith and Nate Owens will also play key roles on the perimeter.

“It doesn’t matter who starts,” Peyton Thomas said, “because both of those guys can play. Nate is probably a better shooter than Dan, and Dan is a little more athletic.”

With Baker and Copeland no longer around, Logan Hill and Jason Mansell will provide depth in the paint.

“Those guys coming up are pretty good,” Peyton Thomas said. “They’re not gonna score like Copeland and Thomas did, but they’ll do well as far as rebounding and playing defense.”

If the Bobcats want a blueprint for how to thrive with their new style of play, they need look no further than last year’s game at Belgreen on December 16, when Benford and Thomas attacked the basket relentlessly and shredded the Bulldogs’ pressure defense on their way to scoring 24 points apiece in an 85-80 win. More performances like that this season could help the ‘Cats continue their winning ways—even without their usual one-two punch in the post.

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