So Sunday, with the pep band blaring away next to him and the cheerleaders cheering and everybody hugging and high-fiving and happy, Hughes was asked:
“So what happened between you and Coach Nagy after last season?”
“Uuuumm….aaaahh,” Hughes said struggling through his thoughts before managing a little smile. “We kind of had a meeting after last year. He asked me, ‘What do you really want?’
“He wanted to know, ‘Do you really wanted to be here?’”
Following his first year at Wright State, head coach Scott Nagy met with all his players after the season. And if he asked the question to a couple of other players – Mark Alstork and Hughes’ good friend, Justin Mitchell – he got different answers.
Alstork – the leading scorer on the team and able to move on as a grad student transfer — said he was leaving and went to Illinois. He started all 32 games for the Illini this season, but averaged 5.8 points per game, about 14 fewer than he did at Wright State.
Mitchell – who would end up playing 99 games for the Raiders and was one of their best scorers and rebounders – waivered back and forth. The answer was “Yes” at the start of the season, but then he was an issue and he was suspended for a game.
He came back again, then decided to leave, only to later change his mind, though by then Nagy had to make a painful decision and said “No.”
Hughes admits the question shook him up. And it rattled his mom, Tracie, as well. She was a Penn State volleyball player, knows the business of college sports and feared her son might be nudged out.
“I told her I was staying on the situation and there wasn’t nothing to worry about,” said Hughes.
“I told Coach Nagy that Wright State was the only place for me and I wanted to stay.”
A challenge, not an ultimatum
Nagy said the meeting was a challenge, not some ultimatum.
“We just challenged him to put himself out there a little more,” Nagy said. “We needed him to be more aggressive and take a bigger role for us.”
Last season the 6-foot-4 Hughes played in 26 games, but never started. He averaged 3.2 points and 2.6 rebounds a game.
Nagy admits some of the numbers were affected by Hughes’ health: “The second half of the season he was pretty injured. His ankles weren’t in very good shape.”
And while his ego may have been temporarily bruised after that meeting, Hughes showed there was nothing wrong with his backbone and his will.
“Yeah, I was kinda taken aback, but at the same time everything coach was saying was right,” he said. “I wasn’t like offended. He was right. I did take a back seat to the older guys and kind of hung back and let them do their thing while I went through the motions.
“I wasn’t exerting myself as a driving force – not the way Coach Nagy said I could. I didn’t see myself like that.”
Nagy’s challenge made him reassess and get back to some of the promise he had shown as a freshman, when he started 20 of 33 games.
“The meeting definitely got me going,” he said. “It kind of lit a fire under me to prove I was as good as anyone. I knew this was something I really wanted to do so I put my head down and worked in the offseason.
“I wanted a major role on the team this season.”
And the way things worked out, the Raiders needed that from him more than ever.
The departure of the oft-mercurial Alstork didn’t surprise Nagy:
“The Mark one, we kind of expected.”
Mitchell’s situation was another story:
“Obviously losing Justin in the middle of the season wasn’t expected,” Nagy said Monday.
Part of the problem revolved around the emergence of transfer Cole Gentry, who became the starting point guard, a move that switched Mitchell – who started all 32 games last season, was No. 2 in the Horizon League in rebounds, fifth in assists, eighth in field goal percentage 21st in scoring, a guy Nagy once called “the most valuable player” on the team – to an off guard positon.
After starting 14 games at the point this year, Mitchell struggled with his move and after the brief exile, he was back for two games and then left the team. One game he sat right behind the bench and watched. After that he wasn’t around.
Eventually he asked to return, but after a couple of days wrestling with the issue, Nagy held firm.
“It was hard and I know it’s hard for Justin, too,” Nagy said.
“And as we went along and were doing well, my heart broke for Justin. I know he wants to be with our basketball team. It was just not a very easy situation for anybody.
“But I thought our guys did a good job handling it and didn’t let it distract them.”
It was especially difficult for Hughes, who has said he considers Mitchell “like a brother.”
With the absence of Alstork and Mitchell, as well as the spinal cord injury that left 6-foot-7 sophomore Ryan Custer in a wheel chair, the under-manned Raiders banded together for a remarkable season and the school’s first NCAA Tournament bid in 11 years.
A big part of the success has been due to Hughes.
He’s started all 34 games and has played more minutes than everybody but Grant Benzinger.
He leads the team in assists and steals, is third in blocked shots and fourth in scoring (9.9 points per game). He’s shooting a far better percentage from the floor, the three-point arc and the free throw line than he did last season.
He’s also the team’s defensive specialist, the guy Nagy usually puts on the other team’s biggest scoring threat outside.
In February, Nagy called him “the best defender” in the Horizon League. The other day he described him as “a heck of a good player, probably the most efficient player we have.”
That’s not to say Nagy doesn’t still prod him.
“There are times I have to get after him to get him going and then he does go,” Nagy said. “I’d like him to do it right away. We’re going to need him to play like that against Tennessee.”
But in the big picture, Hughes has proved himself already.
“I think I handled that meeting well last season and was mature about it,” he said.
The coaches agree, especially, he said, Cliff Sargent, who was once a star player for Nagy at South Dakota State and now is a Raiders’ assistant.
“He told me he wouldn’t have handed it the way I did,” Hughes said quietly. “He said he was really proud of me.
“He said it showed what kind of man I am.”