The Pittsburg State men’s basketball team, picked at the bottom of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association before the season, entered winter break with a 6-3 (2-3 MIAA) record after two losses against Southwest Baptist (84-68) and Central Missouri (78-74), teams expected to be MIAA title contenders.

The Pittsburg State men’s basketball team, picked at the bottom of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association before the season, entered winter break with a 6-3 (2-3 MIAA) record after two losses against Southwest Baptist (84-68) and Central Missouri (78-74), teams expected to be MIAA title contenders.

The Gorillas, under new head coach Kevin Muff, have established an identity built on defensive pressure, balanced offense and deep bench play with a fluid starting lineup where any given night, five or six players can score in double figures and provide clutch shooting, defense and hustle plays.

Four key players in the Gorillas’ lineup are super-fast point guard Eric Ray, versatile guards and forwards Drake Green and Eric Marshall and instant offense Adrian Herrera, all of whom played for Coach Muff at Cloud County Community College and chose Pitt State as their next destination.

Muff said these four young men are among the building blocks in the men’s basketball program because they are unselfish and caring, as well as being good basketball players in their own distinct ways.

“They are great young men,” Muff said.

The head coach said he shares a special bond with Ray, Green, Marshall and Herrera after coaching them at Cloud County and now at PSU.

“Any time you go through the battles of competition together, share triumphs and disappointment and spend practically every day together for six months at a time, you develop a relationship that is unique and special,” Muff said.

Coaches and athletes have relationships that border on parent-child, with all parties learning from one another and developing as individuals.

“You can’t help but develop a strong relationship with one another,” Muff said. “Hopefully, one that will last for a lifetime.”

Pitt State had a chance to be 7-1 on the season and 3-1 MIAA, at home against Southwest Baptist, with a one-point halftime lead. The Gorillas committed 30 turnovers after committing 27 in a 75-66 win over Northwest Missouri; Southwest Baptist won, 84-68, as PSU lost its composure.

“I believe we haven’t been as mentally tough as we need to be, especially in pressure situations,” Muff said. “Our immaturity shows from time to time when we get away from the fundamentals of the game and allow teams to take away the things we do well as a team.

“Our players remain committed to improving and enjoy being here at Pitt State. They have a will to win, but know that winning happens when we focus on playing better and playing as a team.”

The four players

Drake Green, 6-foot-5 junior guard
Green played his best in the Southwest Baptist game; he led Pitt State with 13 points and tied for the team lead in steals with two. The swingman, known for his defensive play, made 5 of 9 shots and grabbed three rebounds.

The Oakland (Calif.) Senior High School graduate also spent one season at NCAA Division III Lewis & Clark as a freshman. In his one season at Cloud, Green averaged 5.4 points and 3.2 rebounds per game.

For Pitt State, Green averages 5.6 points and 2.7 rebounds per game.

Adrian Herrera, 5-foot-10 junior guard
Herrera started the season in style with 14 points against Newman and 13 against College of the Ozarks; he made 10 of 17 field goals and 5 of 9 3-point shots his first two games.

The junior developed a sharpshooting reputation at Topeka’s Highland Park High School and Cloud County, where he averaged 10 points per game last season. Herrera led Cloud County in free throw shooting (42 of 48, 87.5 percent) and 3-point shots with 53.

Herrera averages 5.2 points and 1.1 steals per game; he’s made 8 of 27 3-point shots on the season.

Eric Marshall, 6-foot-5 junior forward
Marshall, who missed the first three games of the season, made his PSU debut against Missouri S&T in Rolla, Mo. He totaled six points, two assists and two steals to go along with his 10 rebounds as the Gorillas won 64-61.

The Detroit, Mich. high school product made All-Jayhawk Conference last season at Cloud County, averaging 10 points and five rebounds per game.

In his six games for PSU this season, Marshall averages 7.0 points, 3.2 rebounds, two assists and one steal per game.

Eric Ray, 6-foot-1 junior guard
Ray, who made All-Jayhawk Conference second team at Cloud County last season, leads the Gorillas with 12.1 points per game (14.8 in MIAA games) on 55.6 percent field goal, 75 percent 3-point and 78.9 percent free throw shooting.

His best offensive performance came against Northwest Missouri: 22 points on 5 of 7 field goals, 4 of 4 3-point shots and 8 of 9 free throw shooting. The point guard hit four of his foul shots in the final 30 seconds of the game.

“We were hungry,” Ray said. “This is our home court and we need to protect it.”

Ray often plays at his best when he’s in open space, can be dangerous in transition and makes opponents pay when challenged to shoot outside.

“He’s a tough kid who was not heavily recruited,” Muff said. “He’s come so far and he’s developed an attitude of he’s not going to let us lose. They (Northwest Missouri) were daring him to shoot and he made them pay. He’s a great point guard.”

Pitt State resumes play Jan. 2 at old conference foe Missouri Southern, who has an undefeated record (9-0) this season.