HUNTINGTON — Ashland head coach Jason Mays joked earlier this week that his squad would not be the “All-Airport” team if the Tomcats walked into the terminal for a visit.
Still, Mays has the utmost confidence in his team’s chances of taking home a Kentucky state championship as Ashland (26-5) gets started in the boys basketball Sweet 16 Thursday evening at Rupp Arena in Lexington.
The battle-tested Tomcats will take on a familiar foe at 8:30 p.m. as they meet Covington Catholic, a team they defeated in Ashland on Jan. 29.
Covington Catholic was one of several Kentucky teams that joined many out-of-state teams Mays inked on a beefed-up schedule to prepare his Tomcats for everything they may see this week in Lexington.
“We played quite a few out-of-state teams this year and it’s prepared us for this,” Mays said, citing Georgia powerhouse North Gwinnett, Cincinnati Elder and George Washington (W.Va.) as examples. “Our goal is to get to this week and not see anybody in the brackets that scares us because we’ve played quality teams up to the point.”
Mays knows that 71-60 win over Covington Catholic earlier this season means little in the grand scheme of the team’s goals.
Instead, his focus is on preparing his team for a rematch, which he feels plays favorably for his Tomcats.
“I like this matchup,” Mays said. “We’ve seen them. They’ve seen us. I don’t think Scott (Ruthsatz, Covington Catholic coach) is going to re-invent the wheel regarding how he coaches his team, and I’m sure he doesn’t think I’m going to re-invent the wheel on how I coach my team.”
The formula for success for Ashland is the same as it has been in recent years: utilizing his 6-foot sharp-shooting guards — thus the All-Airport reference — to knock down shots and pressure teams defensively, which leads to transition play.
Ethan Sellars leads Ashland’s balanced attack at 18.1 points per game while point guard Colin Porter is close behind at 17.4. Cole Villers, who has battled injuries much of the year, is averaging 13.9 for the Tomcats.
“We’re very 6-foot-ish, but we’re skilled,” Mays said. “In the game of basketball, skill wins. We shoot the ball well. We’re averaging over 13 made 3s per game and we’ve got skilled players at those guard spots.”
While Ashland’s high-powered offense gets the accolades, it is the defense that gets the team going, as Mays pointed out.
“We really pressure, especially in our half-court man-to-man, so I think that leads to a lot of our easy offense,” Mays said. “Our defense leads to our offense and there’s no (better) way to get your outside shooting going than to play inside-out. When you get a steal and it leads to a transition layup, then all of the sudden you get some rhythm. Your focus is on your defense and repeating that (success), and next thing you know, the pressure is off you hitting outside shots.”
Covington Catholic (28-4), which has won 10 straight since that loss to Ashland, brings plenty of offense to the table under Ruthsatz.
Evan Ipsaro is the Colonels’ leader at 21.7 points per game, but Ashland’s biggest battles may be with Mitchell Rylee (16.5 points, 8.3 rebounds per game) and Chandler Starks (9.6 points, 8.4 rebounds), who can hurt the Tomcats on the glass.
Ashland has the experience of having made it to the final day of the season last year when the Tomcats lost to eventual champion Highlands in the semifinals, so the stage — Kentucky’s mecca of basketball — will not be too big for the team.
A win would also place them against the Lyon County-John Hardin winner on Friday, which could produce another rematch. The Tomcats defeated Lyon County 87-81 earlier this season at the King of the Bluegrass tournament.
In all, Ashland has played five of the 15 other participants in the Kentucky Sweet 16.