When he was a Wright State freshman, the 6-foot-4 guard said then head coach Billy Donlon – or “Coach D,” as he calls him – was “really hard on me about my defense.”
It was the same mantra he said he had heard back in Youngstown from his high school coach, Ursuline’s Keith Gunther, who told him “If you want to play college basketball, your defense will be how you get on the floor.”
As a sophomore, Hughes said Scott Nagy, the Raiders’ new head coach, pressed him constantly about being more offensive minded and quit deferring to everyone else.
And after the season he said Nagy sat him down as asked him if he really wanted to be there.
The question shook Hughes’ mother, Tracie, a former Penn State volleyball player who knows about the business of D-I sports. She initially feared her son was being nudged out of the program.
Nagy said that was not the case and Hughes, who sometimes marches to his own beat, took the challenge as it was meant to be.
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He pushed himself and last season – named to the Horizon League’s All-Defensive team — he was one of the key players who led Wright State to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 11 years.
This year – his senior season – Hughes said Nagy and his staff, especially assistant coach Sharif Chambliss, again are exhorting him to exert himself on offense, while not slacking off on defense:
“Every night I hear Reef saying, ‘Be aggressive!….Be aggressive!…Be aggressive!’ He’s really helped me with that. It’s easy to be comfortable and settle on offense because we have so many good scorers on this team, but he says they need me to a leader on both ends of the court.”
Against Cedarville, Hughes channeled all those coaches who have pushed and prodded and pressured him over the years and turned in a mostly sparkling performance as WSU pushed aside the Division II Yellow Jackets, 58-39.
On a night Nagy described as “our worst offensive output all year,” the Raiders two top scorers – Loudon Love and Bill Wampler – struggled mightily with their shots.
Wampler made just 4 of 16 shots and went 1 for 8 from three-point range.
The 6-foot-9 Love often wasn’t able to capitalize on his size and strength advantage inside and missed easy shots he usually hits. Although he did finish with 11 points and 11 rebounds, he went 4 for 11 on shots near the basket.
Off the bench freshman guard Skyelar Potter misfired even more, going 0 for 9 from the floor and 0 for 5 from three-point range.
As a team, Wright State shot 31.8 percent from the floor and 29.4 percent from three-point range.
The pair who saved the day where Hughes and point guard Cole Gentry. Between them they went 9 for 17 from three-point range.
Gentry finished with 15 points, eight rebounds, five assists and a steal. Hughes had 14 points (4 for 8 from three-point range), eight rebounds, three steals and an assist. His only flaw was four turnovers.
“We saw how Big Lou wasn’t finishing and Bill Wampler wasn’t making shots, so somebody had to put it up,” Hughes said. “So me and Cole did a good job of that.”
On defense, Gentry limited Cedarville guard Colton Linkous, a 10 points-per-game scorer, to just three shots, all of which he missed.
Hughes, as is usually the case, drew the toughest defensive assignment in Yellow Jackets point guard Branden Maughmer, who came into the game shooting 55.4 percent from the floor, 62.5 percent from three point range and led the team in scoring at 15.2 ppg.
In five previous outings, Maughmer had a total of just five turnovers.
“He’s a really good mid-range shooter and Coach wanted me to take him out of his game,” Hughes said. ”I think I did that. My length definitely bothered him. I could tell he was frustrated.”
Maughmer made just 2 of 8 shots and finished with six points. He equaled his season total with five turnovers against the Raiders.
“Their point guard is a really good player and was shooting a high percentage,” Nagy said. “It’s a luxury having a guy like Mark to put on a very good player like that.”
Chambliss praised Hughes afterward:
“It’s been great to watch him develop over the years. When he was a freshman, I was at Milwaukee and watched him from that side. When I came here I got a chance to coach him. He’s ultra-skilled, a lot more athletic than people think and he’s probably the best on-ball defender in the league.
“Tonight he was just so efficient. He made the open jump shots and he held up his end on defense. He’s got to continue to do that.
“He’s a senior. It’s his last go-around and he’s got go be our leader. He’s too good of a young man to take a back seat on anything right now. I challenge him all the time to be better at everything, not just on the court, but off it, too.”
And in a small way Hughes showed that when he and Gentry were brought to the press conference dais after the game.
Just before the close of the session Gentry was asked what Hughes brought to the team.
With a pause to gather his thoughts, Gentry said: “Everything… As a teammate, what I appreciate is you know exactly what he’s going to give you. He’s not up and down. He’s consistent every game. He guards. He scores. All his stats are good stats.
“I know as a teammate he’s gonna play hard with you and be a good teammate, too. And I think that’s what everyone in the locker room appreciates about him.”
Next to him, Hughes sat in silence, but seemed visibly moved by the assessment.
And as everyone else readied to leave, he leaned over to Gentry and whispered:
“I appreciate that.”
Sometimes praise, as much as pressure, will bring out a guy’s shining qualities.