This is the first-ever meeting for the respective basketball programs, though the sixth year for this inter-conference event. Once again the Big East is bidding to ‘win' the final score with a strong Thursday start against the SEC. Mississippi State has only participated in the Challenge since 2008-09, losing to Cincinnati the first year before beating DePaul the next and West Virginia last season.
Though not part of the event, these Bulldogs have already faced a B.E. team. They lost to Marquette a week ago in the Maui Invitational, giving State an all-time mark of 10-14 against the conference's current membership; a number very much in flux these days for obvious football reasons.
One shouldn't blame Coach Rick Ray for wishing he could stay home for this contest. Not least because his Bulldogs have already made one very long road trip over what was a Thanksgiving holiday for everyone else. But also because both Bulldog wins have come on the home court, most recently Tuesday night's 60-42 beating of Alcorn State.
Still, the schedule largely inherited has Ray's first Bulldog team spending more fall semester time away from home than safely inside Humphrey Coliseum. In fact the December slate has two true home games, offset by a pair of road trips and one semi-home setting in Jackson. It's not ideal, any more than is the limited roster Ray has at his pre-conference disposal.
"We just have to get our guys in the mentality to be ready to compete," Ray said.
Providence has certainly been competitive on their own court with five-straight home wins. The Friars are out-scoring opponents by over ten points on average with 38% field goal defense, with Bryce Cotton setting the scoring pace at 24.3 points so far but also issuing almost five assists each outing. LaDontae Henton adds 16.1 points along with 7.1 rebounds.
"Providence is in a little bit of a situation like us," Ray said. "I believe they only have six scholarship guys available. The difference is they have some veteran guys back in those six players. I know Ed (Cooley), so he'll have those guys ready to play." Friars coach Cooley is in his second season at the Rhode Island college, after a 15-17 debut. But that's one year with his school longer than first-season head coach Ray, who might have a few more scholarship bodies on the MSU roster but a whole lot less experience to work with.
The result has been a lot of early-season lineup shuffles and combinations, sometimes as experiments but usually from simple necessity. Only point guard Trivante Bloodman has started all six games, and he himself was booked for alternate duty this sophomore transfer season. That was before freshman Jacoby Davis was lost in summer for the whole year with a knee injury, the same injury as suffered by wing guard Andre Applewhite in a preseason accident.
And after starting the first two games shooting guard Jalen Steele, the only seasoned backcourt Bulldog, went down with a fractured wrist. He is due back around the start of SEC season in January but until then Ray is cobbling together backcourt groupings as circumstances permit. Or force.
The coach has been encouraged though by how his very young and short-rostered squad has handled more adversity already than most teams see in an entire season. For one positive, how they attacked the Alcorn State game after a lengthy and frustrating week away. The Dogs did not act tired at all.
"I watched the last couple of days and I didn't think there was anything functionally wrong with them. We had to run off some Thanksgiving turkey, that's not unusual, but I didn't see any dead legs." Which was as much a sign of mental conditioning as physical to the coach.
The lineup indicated how much is in-play for this team already. Tuesday night freshman Gavin Ware got his first start at center and made it a good one with 12 rebounds and seven points. That was below the nine points Ware had been averaging but he took just six shots too in 26 minutes. Senior Wendell Lewis became the backup after five starts, and did not score or really try to in his 14 minutes with no shots taken.
Ray isn't worried about his only upperclassman. "He's a basketball player, he'll be fine. He's struggling I think as far as finishing at the rim. Other than that he's playing hard, running the court. If he finishes at the rim it solves all the other problems." Ware has already shown himself a better finisher, sometimes, though Ray said the freshman still—and naturally—tends to fall back on simple high school moves at times. Getting Ware to take advantage of his skills in other ways will boost the frontcourt scoring.
The early-season surprise has been sophomore forward Rocquez Johnson. Having scored all of one point as a rookie reserve, Johnson has averaged 15.2 through five games (he did not play at Troy) on 50% shooting.
"Rocquez is an aggressive kid," Ray said. "He's our toughest competitor, he doesn't shy from contact. He gets down there somehow, I don't design anything but he ends up in the paint after loose balls." And making shots as well. "I wouldn't want to call him a garbage man!" Ray said. "But he's a kid that gives us effort plays." The forward position is a little deeper again as Colin Borchert returned from a three-game suspension and provided six points in 15 minutes Tuesday.
Steele was to be the team's top outside gunner. In his fall absence that has been taken over, to say the least, by freshman Fred Thomas; he's put up 40 of the team's 79 three-point attempts. And made just ten of those, which was partly why Ray used Tyson Cunningham to start the last game while letting Thomas watch for a while.
"I don't want Fred to live and die by his three point shot," Ray said. "He's a talented player I don't want him to believe his only quality he brings to the team is outside shooting." In fact Thomas did get some assists and steals and was plenty active all around the court, as despite a 0-of-4 night at the arc he scored 14 points.
"Coach talks to me about being patient with my shots," Thomas said. "If my threes ain't falling, I know I need to take two dribbles to the rim and set my teammates up. Coach told me come off the bench with some energy."
Another good sign was 14 points from freshman Craig Sword, almost as many as he scored total in Hawaii. "It was my best game since I've been here," said Sword, who'd come in shooting just 27% through the first four games. Sword was 4-of-8 this time around with a couple of assists and five steals. "Coach told me to play calm and the game would come to me."
Ray was proud of the progress his smallish squad made in rebounding too, admittedly against an overmatched Alcorn State but still a positive trend at last. The key was making the Braves miss a lot of shots that could be rebounded, and then keeping them off their own glass. "We've been really easy to play against, for guys to run set plays against," Ray said. And easy to turn-over, too.
That trend remained even in a win. "We had six assists and 21 turnovers," Ray said. "We've got to get that fixed if we're going to be good down the road." Or on the road in Saturday's case, against a Providence club that doesn't take good care of the ball themselves. And despite lack of numbers the Bulldogs are aggressive on defense, grabbing nine steals-per. "We want to be a team that forces turnovers and is hard to play against," Ray said. "And once we get those turnovers or defensive rebounds we're able to push the ball and get something in transition."
Mississippi State is back home next Tuesday, hosting Texas-San Antonio in a 7:00 game.