It would be even better to show some first-half firepower.
"Not necessarily a quick start," Ray said. "But a start where you don't put yourself in a hole."
The Bulldogs have their next chance to make a stronger first-half impression Tuesday, hosting Texas-San Antonio in Humphrey Coliseum. Tipoff is 7:00. This is also Mississippi State's last home-court appearance until December 30, though there is a friendly-setting contest on the 22nd in Jackson against Central Arkansas.
Fans could be forgiven for considering State games over at intermission. In both victories, over Florida Atlantic and Alcorn State, the Dogs have led at halftime; contrasted to trailing in the defeats. And it hasn't been close either way with an average lead of 16.5 in the wins and deficit of 19.8 points in losses.
If the trend is obvious to-date, the cure is less-so to Ray. "I wish I did, if I did know I'd try to rectify it. The common theme is inexperience. Two is trying to find guys that can score." Which is a pretty blunt and painfully accurate summary of the situation Ray and State will continue to cope with through this first season together. At least the experience aspect can, to some extent, fix itself as Bulldogs continue to play through this struggling season.
And play a lot too, since Mississippi State for now has just nine available bodies to work with. Ray is doing a smart, if at times frustrating, job of managing the minutes so that as of now just two Dogs are averaging as many as 30. That would be PG Trivante Bloodman and SF Craig Sword who net an identical 30.7 minutes through seven games. So nobody is getting too badly over-worked to-date.
The potential down-side to this regular rotation is constant disruptions to whatever chemistry a squad can manage together. It's a risk Ray has to accept under the circumstances…though if any of the groupings were to get really hot he'd likely keep them together, longer.
Saturday's second half at Providence was certainly the hottest this squad has looked. Trailing 39-21 at the half, and 59-33 at eleven minutes of the second period, Ray's guys turned into something different. And better. Over the next ten minutes State hacked away at the deficit, pulling within 68-63 at 0:46. The rally halted there as PF Rocquez Johnson missed two free throws and Providence won 73-63.
"I know a lot of people are patting us on the back about the way we came back and competed and got it to a five-point game," said Ray. "But I'm not satisfied with that. It's great our guys came back and played hard. But we have got to do a better job in the first half not to put ourselves in those situations."
Meaning, do a better job on each end of the floor to keep within striking distance of the opponent, or closer. Ray would like to see the sorts of shooting and defense and just general efficient play in first halves. Shooting being the obvious area to start, as State was as cold inside the arena as was the weather outside. This too has been a first-half trend most of the season.
The most glaring example is long-range offense, which was 0-of-13 at Providence for the first half and 2-of-22 overall. The Friars, with a thin roster themselves, were playing a zone anyway, but Bulldog shooting woes did nothing to change their scheme. From Ray's perspective the worst part wasn't just all the misses, though that was bad enough. It was how quickly his team threw up those misses.
"The biggest thing is we took too many of them," he said of trey-trying against a 2-3 zone. "You fall into the trap of shooting three-pointers when you don't have to. And we weren't only settling for threes, we were taking contested threes."
Rookie Sword was for sure, going 0-of-7 at the arc while classmate and 2G Fred Thomas was 2-of-10. Obviously the freshmen kept firing, as they have all season out of both opening and necessity. Thomas is 24% on threes and Sword just 1-of-16. Ray is not about to tell the kids they can't shoot, because State is sure to see more zones until the statistic improve. Or if. The coach does want more careful selection of what and especially when his guards fire.
"The difference is when they take that shot in the shot clock. I tell them you're going to have that same exact opportunity with ten seconds on the shot clock, make those guys play defense the whole possession. Let's make the threes count."
Or, Ray added, make them encourage defenders to come outside a step. Zoned or not the Bulldogs are being told to change their outside shooting approach, by taking a couple of dribbles toward the goal first and see how the defense responds. "Attack, and not just settle," Ray said. "Share the ball until we get something we want, when we're not sharing we're bailing the defense out no matter who we're playing."
Thomas is an interesting case because the shot is so pretty it seems certain to click. Ray agrees to some extent, but said the rookie has to correct some pre-shot flaws. "He's go to get more down and prepared to catch and shoot. We showed him some things where he's standing straight up and almost surprised when the ball comes to him. It's like shooting is an afterthought. He's got to be able to calm down and shot back and take one or two dribbles and get a 10 or 15-foot shot."
From there-on-in though bigger Dogs are showing some productivity. In last week's win over Alcorn State it was freshman center Gavin Ware setting the pace. At Providence, it was sophomore forward Johnson. Those missed free throws obscured a 10 point, seven rebound day after Johnson had scored 13 in the Tuesday victory. He is averaging a team-best 14.3 points, something nobody would have projected in October.
Ray though said it oughtn't be a surprise. "Rocquez is a kid who played so hard in our workouts and competes. A kid like that is always going to have a chance to play a lot of minutes for me. That's why I always mentioned Rocquez. He has a nose for the ball so he gets rebounds, he gets loose balls. And he finds ways to score." In fact Ray is looking to show Johnson even more ways.
"Because I think he has an ability to drive to the basket. We need to isolate him some and find ways to get him to the basket, give him some spacing opportunities to go make a play."
State began the season expecting center Wendell Lewis to go make plays. Then the squad's only senior struggled, shooting just 41% the first six games and taking only 27 shots at that. For whatever reason though Lewis asserted himself at Providence and was 6-of-8 from the field for a season-best 16 points. That is what Ray wants more often. Much more often.
"He's capable of outputs like that. I've said he has the athleticism, he has the body; now it's the mentality to go compete every day. Wendell can't just have that one game we talk about five games from now, it has to be where he continually has a good output."
State also would benefit from the sort of second-half defense seen Saturday, creating mistakes and converting them into points. "The biggest thing is we scored off our defense," Ray said. It's been the other way around too often this early season, and the assist/turnover rate is still a Bulldog deficit. Ray was frustrated by losing the ball so often against a zone defense in particular. Of course the best cure for a young team is simply putting up points consistently and frequently.
"The guys are trying to play good defense. But if you're not having success on the offensive end guys get their heads down a little. Sometimes our defense ends up lacking because of that."
Texas-San Antonio (3-4) will test the Bulldogs' patience at each end, more so with the ball said Ray. "They're a ball-screening offense. They have a real skilled kid at the four-spot that can make things happen. They want to spread you out and drive and have guys that can catch and shoot on the perimeter. We have to keep them out of the lane so we're not always in help situations and giving up threes."