Roundball Dogs Readying For Chicago Trip

Coaching is really teaching. So this week Rick Ray finds himself offering some very special ‘instruction' to his squad about the most unique chapter in Bulldog basketball history. After, that is, the coach did some learning of his own. "Coming to Mississippi State I didn't know about the ‘Game of Change'."

Now Ray does, as will all his Bulldogs by the time they tip off Saturday evening in Chicago against Loyola. This game has been arranged by lots of parties beyond the two programs to commemorate the famed 1963 matchup of Mississippi State and Loyola in the NCAA Tournament. That was when a Bulldog team defied the then-mandates of Mississippi government preventing state collegiate teams from playing squads with African-Americans on the rosters.

The game, played in East Lansing, Michigan, was also the first-ever appearance by Mississippi State in the NCAA Tournament. Those Bulldogs lost 61-51 to the eventual national champions Ramblers.

Over a half-century later now there won't be much in the way of current national-picture impact when 3-5 State takes on 6-3 Loyola. It is about a piece of history recently ranked among the most significant events in NCAA annals.

"What we've been trying to do is educate our guys on the historical nature of the game," said Ray. He might not himself have heard of this long-ago event until moving into the head coach office at Mississippi State. But he's embraced the event and wants players to do the same. They've seen documentaries and read handouts on what happened fifty seasons ago in a very different world.

"We watch film on it and it was kind of inspirational," senior center Wendell Lewis said. "I learned a lot of things I didn't know, and it was kind of fun watching it. I can't wait to play this week and meet the old players from back then." A number of surviving Bulldogs, players or managers, are making the trip to Chicago where some of their '63 opponents will join them.

"This is a unique experience, and I want to use this to our team's advantage," Ray said.

Not as unique but certainly different is the pace of things for State since their last action, over a week ago against Texas-San Antonio. They will have had ten days between games and "We tried to give our guys as much time as possible," said Ray to take care of fall final exams which wrap up Friday. There have been no true team practices but plenty of solo and small group workouts with staff…when the latter were not out on the recruiting road looking for spring prospects. Already important, this has become even more urgent as one of the four fall signees has been released from his scholarship for unspecified reasons before ever enrolling.

Allowing for the special circumstances that have produced this particular game, the Bulldogs are also thinking of their own situation. They want to win, need to really. "It seem it is going to be a very important game," forward Rocquez Johnson said.

At 3-5 with four remaining non-conference contests a win is increasingly important for Mississippi State. Though, Ray does not phrase it exactly that way in defining what he wants most in this stretch. His goal? "In a word, improvement." And right now that means individual progress.

"Our guys are done with finals Friday and we say it's like your NBA time. All you're doing is playing basketball. So we have to take advantage of that time to get guys individual practice. We're going to do some of that, not always just practice. We'll bring guys in and work on their game one-on-one."

First and foremost, Ray means working with the Bulldogs on their obvious issue of the early season: scoring. This was never going to be an offensive machine to be sure. The very nature of this roster, with so many newcomers counted on for starting jobs alongside veterans mostly not used to primary roles assured State would have some struggles with scoring. Then when junior off-guard Jalen Steele cracked his shooting wrist in the second game the offense took just about the worst possible setback.

Steele is still wearing a cast on the right wrist. His recovery schedule was to return in time for SEC season or miss a couple of league games at most. Ray still has such hopes, though "we won't know anything for sure until he gets out of the cast and they look at it again."

Meanwhile Mississippi State does what it can with the available pieces. What they've done, is average 59 points for the eight games on 39% shooting. The three-point shooting is far, far off any respectable pace though at under 23%. The Bulldogs have tried to cut down on how often they throw up the long shots…but by the same token they can't abandon the arc entirely.

And the accompanying fact is, there are Dogs who have the skills to score from long range, such as rookie Fred Thomas. He's 14-of-58 at the arc, having taken almost exactly half this team's trey-tries. "Fred is a talented scorer," Ray said. "In high school he had success taking the shots he takes in college, now people are trying to run him off the three-point line and contest shots. He wants to do the right thing, it's just him adjusting to college basketball."

As well as adjusting his own on-court attitude. One thing that does irk Ray is the team's tendency to take the sort of outside shot at 27 or so seconds of the shot clock, that would be just as available with seven seconds. And Thomas to his credit pleads guilty. "I'm not patient at all. In nothing!" Thomas said.

"That's what Coach is working with me on, being patient and taking good shots." Other sorts of shots too, said Ray, who knows Thomas has the tools to shot-fake, dribble and drive, get the pullups or just go to the rim. "He's not just a good shooter, he's a good player." So is fellow frosh Craig Sword, his 1-of-18 arc accuracy notwithstanding. Ray has reminded the rookie that just because a arced stripe is painted on the floor, he isn't required to shoot from there.

Also, He's trying to cut down his turnovers, but still find ways to go make plays," said Ray. Preseason injuries have left State without a regular point guard so transfer Trivante Bloodman (24 assists, 23 turnovers) is sharing ball-distributing duty with Sword.

A good Dog to get the ball to is Johnson, who has blossomed as a sophomore forward. He's averaging a team-best 13.3 points on 46% shooting, more on pure effort than any scripted plays. "I hustle a lot and the more I hustle the easier it is to get baskets," Johnson said. "They don't really have plays ran for me, I just go get it by myself. I rebound a lot on offense to get a lot of my points." Enough that he is second in SEC offensive board-work this week.

Another encouraging development is Lewis' becoming more aggressive on offense. At last. He scored just 29 total points in the first six game and blanked against Alcorn State, an opponent Lewis could have dominated. Then at Providence the senior center finally asserted himself for 16 points and 11 rebounds; and followed that with a career-high 20 points in the win over UTSA. In these games Lewis has shot 14-of-17.

"You know, lately I've been feeling comfortable," Lewis said. "I've been getting reps in after practice, working on smaller things and getting better. So I feel pretty good."

The Bulldogs have to be good Saturday in Chicago against a competitive Loyola which is coming off a loss at #17 Michigan State (host of that famed NCAA game ironically). These teams haven't met since 1963.

"And it's a big away game," said Lewis. " A lot of people are expecting us to win. The biggest thing is jump on them real quick and not wait to the last minute to play, the way we do on the road." The way that State has lost all road and neutral contests so far this season.

Ray appreciates the special nature of this particular game. He even notes the irony of the event being celebrated, noting how back in that era discrimination typically meant limiting opportunities for African-Americans. But it was Mississippi State's all-white teams of 1959, '61, and '62 which won Southeastern Conference championships yet were not allowed by their own administration and state government to participate in the national basketball tournament. This is part of the history being taught to the current Bulldogs and Ramblers as well as the TV audience.

But at the same time Ray's team has its own season to play and mark to make. And December chances to settle the squad before SEC season are running out.

"The big thing is we want to win," Ray said. "I want our guys to start experiencing success in things they haven't done before, like winning on the road."

Mississippi State has another full week-off before their next game, hosting Central Arkansas on December 22 in their annual home-away-from-home contest played in Jackson.

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