Ray Readies Squad For SEC Opener

Yes, the schedule gets serious this week. But Rick Ray is not telling his team to obsess over names as conference season tips off. "I think the one thing we want to do is emphasize to our guys not worry about the opponent, as much as us getting better."

January typically is a fine time to get better because Mississippi State's competition is about to do so. Fortunately for the Bulldogs (5-7) they do debut this SEC schedule at home Wednesday evening; and against another program in rebuilding mode as they host South Carolina (10-3). Game time is 7:00 with ESPN3 telecast.

As for their coach's emphasis, the Bulldogs seem to have bought in. Yes, guard Craig Sword said, there is another level of energy that comes with SEC season...but not anything unexpected over the course of a long schedule. "We've got to practice and focus. We're ready for it, though," the freshman said.

"It's really just more games, we have to play our game. So we don't worry about it."

This doesn't imply anything lackadaisical to Mississippi State's outlook on SEC action. It is a reminder that with all Ray's first team has already endured in summer, pre-season, and fall semester play, these Dogs have learned not to worry about much anything. Talk about a step at a time, this team epitomizes the idea.

And their most recent step, a 97-46 romp over New Orleans, was in the right direction. It was certainly a positive after the previous game, a two-point loss at home to Alabama A&M which left most everyone involved shaken. The defeat to a SWAC opponent was tough enough to take in any event, but watching a double-digit lead vanish stung that much more.

"The first 15 minutes were the best we'd played," Ray said. "But because we lost no one thinks we got better." It also put the first-year coach in a delicate team-psyche situation. "We talked about it, I said we have to let it out. I could have come in there upset and put them through rigors in practice, but that's not what our team needed. We played really well 15 minutes, then we had a scoring drought. And when you have a drought guys revert to old habits."

Routing New Orleans was a small step in altering some habits, with 57% State shooting and even 11-of-21 work at the arc. Ray was more impressed with 33% shooting defense and a big rebounding edge, both of which he really hopes extends into SEC season and against South Carolina in particular. The critical part though was just putting A&M behind with a W.

"So it was good for our guys to see all their hard work come to fruition with a win. But we're just trying to prep for South Carolina."

On the first night of SEC season, this particular matchup is more meaningful than might be the usual case for both teams. Both participants have, essentially, marked their opener as a ‘must' win of sorts since Bulldogs and Gamecocks alike figure to be underdogs against most of the rest of the league. Ray doesn't draw too close a link between his fellow first-year peer Frank Martin though.

"Each individual program and circumstance is different, I'm sure he's going through some trials and tribulations. I'm not sure if it's comparable to what we're going through."

The respective squads aren't easy to compare either since the schedule have nothing in common. What stands out statistically is better Gamecock shooting, 46% to 41%; and similar edge in three-pointing. Ray's attention is more drawn to what happens with missed shots. The Bulldogs have been hitting the glass better of late and have a positive rebounding rate, but South Carolina is crashing the board at a positive 9.5 margin.

"The big thing for us against them is they do a great job attacking the glass," Ray said. "We're going to do things as far as screening against their posts and in transition, but it pales compared to what happens when the ball goes up. We've got to be ready for combat, not just rebounds but loose balls as well." And those happen because S.C. turns the ball over as much as State…which is a lot.

"They're going to work hard, just like every other team," forward Colin Borchert said. "But we're going to be ready for them the way Coach prepares us. We're going to know their key players and their sets and what they run." South Carolina is welcoming a veteran back to their roster too, as with football season done guard Bruce Ellington can focus on basketball.

‘Veteran' is not something said much about these Bulldogs, but a lack of prior exposure to South Carolina stands out. Among available Bulldogs only G Jalen Steele has ever played a minute (33 of them) against South Carolina, with five points in that game. He was 1-of-10 shooting too. Steele of course has also made his own mid-season return but after an early wrist injury.

In his two games since recovery, Steele has scored 26 points but needed 8-of-21 shooting (6-of-12 treys) to get it. Still he is a most welcome sight for his squad, practice and games alike. Borchert certainly welcomes the offensive help. "Jalen is a key factor in this program, and when he steps on the floor all eyes are on him." Particularly, he hopes, Gamecock eyes in this case.

"They'll know Jalen, and we're all new," Borchert said. "So it opens up the court more. And the offense clicks since he's been back."

Not just the offense, Ray said. "His approach is good for our guys to see, he takes everything as far as doing it the right way. But the second part is he helps our whole team because he provides spacing. Everybody knows he can shoot so it's one less person that is going to double-down on Gavin Ware or help on drives by Chicken (Craig Sword) and Rocquez Johnson."

Ware, State's only available center, can use the help. The freshman needs as many one-on-one situations as possible to make scoring moves, something he's done well with a 14.7-point average the past three games. Ware has also hit the glass harder of late with 13, 11, and eight boards in this stretch. But still the rookie is about to play his first SEC foe and it will be a different sort of game.

"It's prestigious," Ware said. "It's just coming in and play hard, Coach says we need to be more focused and alert." Forward Johnson seems back on track after a short and modest slump for New Year with 14 points against UNO and a 12.4 average.

For all the intangibles and experience Steele's most needed on-court contribution is still outside shooting. Taking him out of the equation leaves a squad that made just 24% of long shots in a six-game stretch. No wonder over their holiday down-time Ray had everyone, at their convenience, reporting to the gym and taking 200 jumpers a day of all sorts. That led to better shooting the past two games.

"It wasn't we had this breakthrough, guys came in and got extra shots and you see a direct correlation in games. But also guys stopped taking bad shots. I don't have any problem with our guys taking threes, it's taking contested threes when they can go get another shot." Meaning he wants guards Sword and Fred Thomas attacking the lane or shooting off the bounce and making the defense adjust accordingly. Even Borchert is getting into this mindset. "I need to find my sweet spot and take a good shots. I'm getting better, but I'm starting to go inside then out."

A win will mean much to maintaining this team's fragile progress, besides starting SEC season the right way. Bulldog teams have dropped their last two conference openers after winning three-straight from 2008-10. But State also has a five-year, six-game win streak going against the Gamecocks and have not lost a home game in the series since 2007.

Beating a New Orleans might not have moved many national needles. "But I know our guys feel good about the victory and the way they're playing," Ray said. "I just wanted our guys to und to keep working, keep grinding, and understand the process and you will get better. Whether that continues against South Carolina and Georgia remains to be seen."

Ray also indicated injured point guard Jacoby Davis could be able to begin practicing by the end of January. The freshman tore a ACL in late summer and is still likely to redshirt this season. His help at practice though, where managers and assistant coaches have to fill scout team roles, would be welcomed.

"But I want to make sure he's 100% on that, I don't want to do that too early," Ray said. "The last thing we want to do is throw him out there and get him re-injured."

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