Ray Pleased With Preseason Scrimmage Pace

First they practiced, hard. Then they played a full half-game's scrimmage, even harder. No wonder a bunch of basketball Bulldogs were blowing, hard, after galloping through a grueling Wednesday schedule. Not that their coach was sparing sympathy. "Yeah, they're 18 and 21 year old kids," Rick Ray shrugged. "They're fine!"

Whether or not Mississippi State players felt all that fine following two vigorous hours in Humphrey Coliseum wasn't recorded. And the handful of media observing both practice and scrimmage saw lots of post-contact grimaces, even a few stoppages for (fortunately) minor dings. Still this was what first-year coach Ray believes the Bulldogs need as they race the calendar ahead of season tipoff.

"We want to make sure we're getting our work in," said Ray of the day's regimen. "We wanted to scrimmage and take advantage of the officials. But at the same time we've got so many things we're still trying to implement, we have to have some hard practices before (scrimmaging). I wanted to get our guys up and down the court, see how the referees blow the whistle. And more so than anything compete against each other."

Competition was good Wednesday, even entertaining in stretches. And when the final stats printed out, the White team had come away with a 38-37 win over the Maroons for a regulation half of basketball. The white-shirted squad would have been expected to come out ahead based on starting lineups; it featured the two true veterans State has to work with this year in guard Jalen Steele and Wendell Lewis, who combined for 17 points.

Also on the White side was forward Colin Borchert, and guards Craig Sword and Tyson Cunningham. The Maroons began with guards Fred Thomas, Andre Applewhite, Trivante Bloodman, and forwards Gavin Ware and Rocquez Johnson. Exact team numbers aren't reliable though as there was some switching mid-scrimmage, most obviously after Johnson had to take a seat with an icepack on the left knee.

Steele had 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting and was 3-of-7 at the arc. Sword had eight points and Borchert seven more, with a trey; while Lewis scored six points with five rebounds and all three of the recorded blocked shots by either team. Juco transfer Borchert was a surprise on the glass with a game-best eight rebounds and also paced his squad with four assists.

Thomas was the day's scoring star though, hitting five shots—three of them treys—for 16 total points. Had he made all his free throws the freshman would have reached 20 points in fact. Bloodman added seven points with three assists while Ware also had seven points with five rebounds.

Combined, the Bulldogs were 26-of-56 shooting and 9-of-22 on the arc. Given the rushed pace of play, not to player mention familiarity with each other, Ray was satisfied with the percentages. Even a rash of turnovers was not terribly troubling. Not that the coach likes giveaways, but he kept it in context.

"It's hard when playing against yourself all the time because the other team obviously knows what you're doing. And for us, we're trying to cause and create turnovers. But also offensively we're trying not to turn the ball over. So we don't know for sure right now do we have bad offense as far as turning the ball over, or is our defense good? You don't know really until you play another team."

Steele—who twice was hobbled by cramps—set a pace for that long list of new and young backcourt Bulldogs that has to be developed for immediate action this season. A few appear closer to college speed than others, such as Bloodman. The juco transfer was supposed to alternate at point guard, but with freshman Jacoby Davis out after a summer surgery Bloodman is now bidding to be the starting quarterback.

"He's done a really good job," said Ray. "Now he has a high turnover rate and for a point guard that's the biggest thing he has to correct. But as far as being a leader, a defensive pest, and trying to make sure his team is trying to win, he's done a good job with that."

The coach is also pleased with what rookie Thomas can bring to the offense…and he certainly has no hesitation about firing away already. "Yeah, Fred can shoot the basketball! Now he has to learn the difference between what is a good shot and what is a bad shot. But having a guy who can make shots like that spreads the defense."

Speaking of defense, for a good part of the five-on-five practice preceding scrimmage there was a lot of zone showed. Ray said not to read anything into that, as the entirely man-on-man scrimmage proved.

"That's just getting ready for an opposing team. We're not going to play much zone at all. We just wanted to put it out there to start implementing our zone offense." As for the motion offense he preaches, the Bulldogs do seem to enjoy the pace it sets. For one thing, the shot clock never ran out during scrimmaging. It even adds some zip to full-court pressure defenses. Still Ray knows his first team is a long way from fully understanding, much less perfecting, what motion truly means.

"The thing about it too, sometimes I don't want them to move all the time. Sometimes standing alone in the corner spotted-up is a good situation! I don't want meaningless, nonsensical movement. I want a purpose to the movement."

As the calendar moves into November, there is increased purpose in all Ray requires. And Sunday afternoon fans can see for themselves how the work is progressing, as Mississippi State hosts William Carey in a 4:00 exhibition. It is the only exhibition of the preseason.

"We've got a long way to go in that regard," Ray said. "The exhibition game will be really good for us, see how those guys feel against somebody else and game scenarios. But right now I'm pleased with how we're progressing. We just have to continue to toughen-up and do some hard, physical things."

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