This is the 22nd time Mississippi State has played a game in the ‘big house' since it opened a half-century ago. Bulldog teams are 15-5 in official games, as a 2010 meeting with NAIA Belhaven was only an exhibition. But the Coliseum court has been kind to State over the years with eleven-consecutive victories dating back to 1985.
And first-year Bulldog boss Rick Ray is comfortable continuing this arrangement of playing a between-semesters home game away from the empty campus. Though he has other motives as well. "We want to be successful in Jackson, it's a major recruiting area. And we want guys to go back and play in front of their home crowd."
More than that though, Ray and club want to win. Particularly a game played outside Humphrey Coliseum, as the Bulldogs have lost all six contests away from the home court. Jackson will do just fine for breaking that trend. Beyond that just getting any victory here in middle of a struggling season is important for MSU mindsets before diving into conference competition.
"I think we just need to stay motivated," forward Colin Borchert said. "Work hard with coach, and go out there and compete. We can't handle everything else but we can go out there and compete."
The ‘everything else' Borchert refers to are the well-known setbacks that have dogged the Dogs this first season with Ray. He began the year with a modest roster in the first place, but injuries have whittled the available lineups to just six scholarship players and a pair of walk-ons. Now none of these who will suit up in Jackson had started a college game prior to November.
The most recent casualty is center Wendell Lewis, the only senior on the roster. He fractured his right knee-cap a week ago in practice and had surgery on Wednesday. This was a more painful loss than most as the center had 36 points and 16 rebounds in the previous two games and was playing the best ball of his whole career. Ray reported the operation went routinely with no unexpected setbacks. Lewis is resting now at home in Selma, Ala., with a longer than anticipated Christmas break.
It's looking from my understanding like a six-week process before we can find out anything," Ray said. Of course that would extend into February, half of the SEC schedule, and not include rebuilding time. So while Ray won't come out and say it, the season seems done for Lewis. "We're going to do what's best for him," the coach said, which includes the prospect of appealing for a medical redshirt.
Even allowing for having a veteran postman back next year, Ray thinks Lewis' long-term career would benefit from a fifth season. "Right now if he was going to play professional basketball overseas he really doesn't have much of a resume," Ray reminded. "From the kid's standpoint it's best for him but he has to feel comfortable with the program and where it's going." Regardless, Ray is not inclined to rush Lewis back for a couple of weeks at the end of the schedule.
Word on guard Jalen Steele is more encouraging. The junior cracked his right (shooting) wrist in the second game of the season, back on November 13. The cast was removed yesterday. "And everything showed things properly healed," Ray said. "Now he's in a splint, he can't wear that during a game but right now he's cleared to do everything as far as non-contact."
Ray said once back from Christmas break Steele will be evaluated again. There is some slim chance of activation for the next home game, on December 30, but it is much more likely the starting off-guard returns in January.
Not having the only two true veterans available showed in the 59-51 loss at Loyola-Chicago last Saturday. The revamped lineup actually was hanging with the host Ramblers with a 17-14 score midway of the first half, before a five-minute scoreless stretched doomed the Dogs. They trailed 34-20 at halftime and only a strong late-game surge cut the final margin to single-digits.
Thomas said the loss came down to the same factors that have cost State dearly this season; one extended period without scoring while the opponent pulled away, and overall poor shooting. Fatigue too is a contributing factor, as by the end of the first half the short roster is winded. Borchert doesn't want to use lack of substitution as an excuse though.
"You see all these national championship winners, they don't play with 15 people. They play with seven, eight maybe. That can't be a reason we're losing. We don't have that much depth on the bench but we practice so hard we shouldn't get tired. We're just not knocking down shots right now."
They aren't, with a team accuracy of 39% overall and just 23.7% at the arc. Ray doesn't get frustrated with the percentages as long as the team takes the right shots at the right times. It is putting up quick trey-tries early in the clock that gets to him, since the same attempt would be available 20 seconds later.
Defensively, the Dogs are showing up better and allowing just 41% shooting. But with so many mutual misses the emphasis is on getting rebounds, and here State is losing badly. Loyola had a dozen more boards and second-chance points were again a factor in MSU's defeat. So is lack of size around the goal, where freshman Gavin Ware (7.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg) starts. Borchert (5.5, 4.3), signed out of junior college to shoot from the wings, is now lending a hand in the paint.
So is skinny soph forward Rocquez Johnson, the breakout Bulldog of the year at 13.3 points and 5.8 rebounds. Johnson manufactures his points on ‘effort' plays more than scripted sets and at Loyola even threw in some long-range jumpers. Still the regular backcourt is badly missing Steele's experience and touch. Thomas (11.4 points) has made 17 of the team's 31 treys but needed 67 tries to do it.
Nor have Borchert (2-of-15) or guard Craig Sword (1-of-18) found the range reliably either. "We're getting open looks," Thomas agreed. "But we'll be so tired, we have eight players and are still trying to compete. But when we get open shots we have to knock them down."
First the Bulldogs have to take better care of the ball, as a literal 2-to-1 team ratio of turnovers to assists shows. And Ray expects Central Arkansas' coach Corliss Williamson has scouted this. "He's a Nolan Richardson disciple and we're going to see a lot of pressing, if you look at the stats the best thing to do against us is to make us handle pressure." So Ray predicts plenty of run-and-jump pressure in full- or half-court on shaky State ballhandlers.
"Offensively, it is a dribble-drive offense. They're going to get in the paint and make individual plays to make us sink-in, so they can kick it out for open threes. There is some ball-screening involved but mostly its dribble-drive."
There is no telecast of Saturday's game, with the broadcast available on the MSU Radio Network.
The Bulldogs close out the 2012 portion of their schedule by hosting Alabama A&M on December 30.