"We've got two important home games coming up," Ray said. "It's a chance for us to do something moving forward."
Quite possibly this is State's best chance of the remaining season, in terms of a single week with such potential. The Bulldogs host a 2-4 peer Wednesday as Texas A&M (12-7) comes to Humphrey Coliseum for a 8:00 contest. Saturday brings to town the only one-win conference club with a 4:30 game against LSU (10-7, 1-5). So if Ray's team is to reverse their current course this is the week to do it.
"And don't lose sight of that, besides the lop-sided losses we've had recently," he said.
It has been a tough two weeks in that respect. After opening with wins over South Carolina and Georgia, the Dogs have been thumped by an average margin of 27 points. This is bound to take a toll on any squad's psyche. But a roster such as this with only one genuine veteran playing and everyone else forced into roles and responsibilities beyond their years would seem more vulnerable.
In many ways the 92-47 home loss to #8 Florida exemplified the challenge Ray now faces. "We've got to get healthy again as far as how we feel about ourselves and how we feel about our team. I thought we lacked some enthusiasm and more importantly I really didn't feel our guys thought we could win that game. I didn't think they had a belief in themselves.
"In order for us to be successful we have to believe in ourselves, we have to get that back."
Ray also said State has to get back to an idea of play they had been showing before Saturday, when for the first time the coach saw what he called ‘selfish' play. This was by no means accusing Dogs of looking out for themselves; if anything what they did was inspired by wanting so badly to make plays for the team. But the end result Ray said was the same.
"When I say those guys were selfish, only in the aspect I asked them to use the shot clock more. So I don't want that to be a broad statement in general. They didn't do what we asked them to do so they were being selfish at that time." Then again, Ray qualified, some of this is inevitable just by the nature of the team. Again Florida's veteran lineup offered the clear contrast. Their freshmen did not have to do any more than they were asked.
State? "All our freshmen and really all the inexperienced guys don't have experience at this level and are trying to grow up in front of everybody. But they also have to be the main thrust of the team. It's unfortunate situation for our guys because they have to grow up in front of everybody. But they have to do it."
The coaching-trick is to present this too-much-responsibility-too-early as an opportunity to accelerate individual development. Sure, the Dogs are taking lumps and painful ones at that. But they are also learning lessons, hard way or not, which should stand them in good future stead. Now if they can just re-learn the joy of victory…
"We've got to use examples of what is going on in college basketball to make our guys feel good they can still do some things the rest of the season."
The matchup with Texas A&M shows potential for State to do some better things. The teams are neck-and-neck in SEC scoring for example, 1.5 points apart. The Aggies do shoot a bit better from the field, while State is more accurate at the foul line. The Bulldogs block more shots and steal more balls too. And while State remains miserable in terms of long-range accuracy, Dogs do manage to make almost as many treys per league game as does a A&M team that doesn't shoot from the arc very often.
But when it comes to scoring defense and rebounding, the margins become glaring in Aggie favor. "The thing that's hard about A&M is I don't see any weaknesses," Ray said. "Especially defensively. I think they do a really good job of being sound on the defensive end. So you're going to have to work and work and work to get a good quality shot against them."
Speaking of quality shots, Aggie Elston Turner finds his share. He averages 16.0 points in SEC play, with a fine balance of regular jumpers, three-pointers, and free throws. "It's the different ways he scores," Ray said. "He hit deep threes, he hit mid-range shots, he got post-up opportunities and got to the rim. Playing a guy like that who can score at all levels that poses a problem. The other thing is he's a crafty scorer." Not only that, Turner has explosive potential as his 40-point outing at Kentucky showed.
"So we have to limit his touches, treat him the way we did (Georgia's) Pope and (Tennessee's) McRae, and be Turner-conscious." Though State can't ignore the rest of a balanced Aggie attack with two more double-digit scorers and consistent shooting in the lineup.
Unlike say Florida and Arkansas, this is not an opponent which forces the tempo. "It's going to be a grind again, to make sure we don't take that first bad shot. Let's work the shot clock and get a good shot because I think they're going to force us to do that. Not just against Mississippi State, they've done it against other quality opponents."
Understand, Ray is not against his guys seizing quick-strike opportunities. He just wants them to be smarter about it and know the opponent. Against the Gators, a fast and ill-advised jumpshot meant misses, "and I told our team that's a turnover as well." But shooting too soon also meant no Dog was around the rebound.
This week? "Maybe against Texas A&M and LSU we'll give them that freedom back because I want those guys to run and fast-break. But we also have to make good decisions while we're doing it." Which is a clear message to his team: this coach will loosen the leash as long as Dogs show they can produce.
"You can win games when you're not having the greatest opportunities to score."
Or without a long roster either. Speaking of which, the depth won't improve this season. Freshman guard Jacoby Davis will not be activated, instead he gets the entire year to heal from the summer knee injury. Davis is participating in some drills now, but that is not practicing per se said Ray.
"He's on the court doing non-contact things in shooting drills. But he's still not full-bore in being able to move and cut and things like that. As far as come back and full contact he's a ways away from that. And we're not going to force it because he's sitting out the season anyway, it would be ill-advised just so we could have another body at this time."
Ray also reaffirmed that senior center Wendell Lewis is in line for a medical redshirt after his December kneecap fracture. There is some question though whether Lewis is certain about a fifth year. "That's something he needs to make sure he's comfortable with, I think he does feel pretty comfortable with that. But as I've said before he needs to make sure he wants to be part of this program and everything about it on and off the court and what we're trying to do here."