Bulldogs Tipping Off Ray Era At Troy

Winning an exhibition was one thing. Playing a game that counts? "Yeah, Friday is going to be a test to see where we're at, and where we're going to be at," Jalen Steele said.

Where Mississippi State is at to tip off this season is Troy, Alabama. The Bulldogs open their year and the Rick Ray era as well against the Trojans in their brand-new arena. This is the first time State has begun with a genuine road-floor game since 2001 at California.

Ray ran the Bulldogs through their final tune-up Sunday afternoon, with a 80-74 win over William Carey. The narrow margin confirmed some concerns from the preseason that needed addressing.

"This week we've been working on the little things we messed up the exhibition game," said Steele. "We put emphasis on defense and rebounding, once the game comes Friday we'll see where we are with that."

What everyone will see in the opener is a Bulldog roster even shorter than before after another season-ending injury. The latest casualty is DeAndre Applewhite, who sat out Sunday's exhibition pending examination of a hurting knee. The Monday MRI showed a torn ligament and meniscus, putting the wing guard on the bench before the freshman season could even begin. He joins classmate and fellow freshman guard Jacoby Davis, also done for the year with a July knee injury.

This leaves Ray with ten roster players for the entire season. And yes, Steele said, this has taken an emotional toll on the team above even the physical strain of practicing short-handed.

"Sometimes between practices people hang their head because we're losing players. But I always say there's a light to the end of the darkness. And I believe something good is going to come out of the bad things happening to us."

Two good things Ray is counting on are guard Steele and center Wendell Lewis, the only returning lettermen of any real playing time. For that matter only five Bulldogs total were on the team last winter. For a first-time head coach it is not an ideal situation to say the least. Still Steele said he and Lewis have accepted the responsibility of not just moving up to starting status, but becoming the team's two trend-setters.

"Wendell understands what he has to do and I do also. We have to help the lower classmen out, pat them on the back or tell them to hustle harder. This Friday is going to be a true test of me and Wendell's leadership."

Junior Steele will start at off-guard but also end up playing some point alongside a couple of backcourt freshmen in Fred Thomas and Craig Sword. None are true point guards; realistically the injured Davis was the only such player on this roster. So every guard will have to try their hand at running the show in the early season, including sophomore transfer Trivante Bloodman.

Steele and Thomas ought to have backcourt shooting covered though. Steele has hit 97 treys in two abbreviated college seasons and looks to have much more looks now that he becomes a full-time starter. Thomas hasn't shied away from taking any shot in scrimmage and exhibition play himself.

Sword now has to play a bit above his 6-3 size. "I see opportunity," Steele said hopefully. "In the exhibition he was nervous and fouled, but when he got his thoughts together in the second half he came out and played his game." The injuries also open the door for junior Tyson Cunningham to get a lot more minutes than ever imagined for the former walk-on.

"Tyson is going to have to hit the gym extra hard!" Steele said. "He's going to have to do everything extra. I know he might not be used to this but I tell him you might have to wake up at night and go shoot, just because you have to fill that role."

Lewis will have only one backup in the post, freshman Gavin Ware. The Starkville native has done wonders getting in college shape over the summer and preseason and has some raw skills to work with. But he also has much to upgrade before conference play on offense. Rocquez Johnson can go into the paint but is more comfortable facing the basket as a big forward. That is also where juco forward Colin Borchert is a welcome addition on offense, with three-point range and a good eye for the ball. His defense is a work in progress though.

Speaking of shooting, that is certainly the strength of a Troy team coached for the 32nd year by one-time Mississippi State assistant Don Maestri. The Trojans are noted for up-tempo play and a very quick trigger at the three-point line. Steele said scouting work so far has focused on stopping Troy's favored dribble-drive plays, as penetration pulls in the defense and leaves the kick-out shot wide open.

"We're trying to switch the defense up, and throw the zone in a little," Steele said. "They've got a bunch of shooters and we have to close-out on them and stop them getting into the paint." Which he added meshes well with the overall defensive goal. "This year it is more aggression, we're up into the ball more. There's no more space between us and the ball, if they're a shooter we're going to get up into him and make him put the ball on the ground."

The Bulldogs would rather make their debut on the home court of course. Still Steele can see some benefit in opening on the road, especially playing a first game in a new arena where everyone ought to be motivated. "We're going to have to keep our heads high and focus on the game." And most of all, not let the short roster nor long odds of the season get into their heads. There is a good way to handle all these obstacles, Steele believes.

"That we've got to hustle more. We just have to out-scrap people, we have to out-hustle people. Once we figure that out as our identity I think we'll do good."

Mississippi State has its home court opener next Tuesday with a 7:00 game against Florida Atlantic, part of the lead-up to the November 19-21 Maui Classic.

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