They went into last week tied for SEC first, but losses to Kentucky and Florida have brought Ole Miss back in reach of the pack as well as cost their top-25 ranking. A couple of injury issues have also increased their second-half challenges. Still the very few veteran Dogs of Oxford trips left don't doubt the home team will be at emotional full-strength for the rivalry.
"I told them the number-one game we're going to play is probably Ole Miss," sophomore forward Rocquez Johnson said. "The energy is crazy. I told them it's going to be rough."
Then again things have been plenty rough already for a State squad battered over their three-week skid. The last one was most deflating of all. Ray's team went into the week hoping and to some degree expecting success against comparable conference peers LSU and Texas A&M. Optimism and the home court combined for two very strong starts as State took dozen-point leads into their halftime locker room and held 14-point margins early in the second periods.
But neither lasted with the Aggies taking a 55-49 final in overtime; and the Bengals sticking the last shot at 1.5 seconds for a 69-68 decision. Johnson unintentionally showed just how numbing the losses, particularly to LSU, still are when he said "At the end we didn't fight a hard as we should have, that's how we got the W…I mean the L."
Johnson had a point though as each ought have ended in a Dog W. And Ray was particularly encouraged how they rebounded from Wednesday's overtime letdown to start so strong again. The problem simply has become finishing winnable games and puts the first-year head coach in an odd situation at Monday's practice.
"Do you stay negative, do you stay positive, 50-50 of each?" Ray said. "You have to figure out the tone of our team and where their spirits are." Ray is opting to practice only for Ole Miss today, then tomorrow and Wednesday review the preceding game tapes for the good, the bad, and the fixable.
There is enough on the plate anyway prepping for Rebel hot-shot Marshal Henderson, the SEC's scoring leader at 19.5 points on the overall season. That is two whole points ahead of nearest competitor Georgia's Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The junior is even farther ahead in three-pointing with 83 treys, or 32 more than KC-P. Henderson puts up ten or more such long shots each evening—"He's going to shoot" as Ray said—but is not just a reckless gunner. His 36% outside accuracy is 6th best in the league.
"The thing that makes him effective is his ability to cut," said Ray. "A lot of guys can make shots off the stand-still but what makes him special is his ability to cut on a dime." Which is made all the more effective by teammates able to screen Henderson free all around the arc. And as Ray added, "I think he doesn't have much of a conscience in shots he's taking. He's a confident young man."
Such confidence won't be impinged on as the Rebel shooter plays a defense that gives up 34% three-point shooting, 13th worst in the league. For that matter Ole Miss' 79-point season average is best in the SEC today, aided by strong offensive rebounding that provides more second chances to score. And they take good care of the ball to boot.
Henderson is the extra ingredient that might be able to return Ole Miss to NCAA play, joining a bunch of older hands who have a last chance. Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner have certainly served their time getting here and present State's limited frontcourt some tall problems. "They're big, physical, strong kids," said Ray. You've talking about a fifth-year senior and another senior. The pair combine for almost 18 rebounds and 24 points, while setting brutal blocking for shooters. But, "You can't have your guys get caught up in ball-screens, they expose you inside. With our lack of depth we have to be careful."
Lack of depth is putting State's frontcourt situation mildly. There isn't any beyond, at the moment, forward Johnson. Ray relies on Gavin Ware at center and Colin Borchert at starting forward, and plays everything from there by ear. And fouls, and exhaustion, and whatever else may come. It's been an erratic SEC season for Johnson who in pre-league play scored double-digits eight of 11 games. He did get 14 points against South Carolina but in the next six games netted 21 total points.
He did look back on older form though with a 10-point outing against LSU, making all four shots. "I don't mind coming off the bench, it seems when I get in I do bring a lot of energy to the team." Improved output certainly helps take some pressure off Ware, though the freshman has settled into a routine averaging 11, 12 points per the last two weeks. And now Borchert is finding his own groove with ten points each of the last three games and a pair of treys each time out.
But, the trio has also struggled on two key fronts; they've been turnover-prone and missed out on free throws. The entire team for that matter has come up short in these areas, and the cost was dear last week. Ray compared it to last night's Super Bowl decided he said on turnovers and special teams. "Which I compare to free throws. I'm going to relay that to our guys, you've got to take care of the basketball and make free throws."
Each is something very hard to hide, too. A string of second-half turnovers and ensuring cheap Aggie points turned that game into a loss. And had the Dogs just made three or four more free throws instead of going 48% at the line they would have had more lead than LSU could have made up. Ironically in the preceding five games State was efficient at the line, 56-of-74 or 76%, so they can produce there.
Turnovers, now, are a season-long failing and difficult to fix given lack of true point guard play and tired second-half legs. Ray noted how those halftime leads actually encouraged A&M and LSU to put on defensive pressure that changed the game(s). Moreover, "We've got to fix our second half starts." As for free throwing, that hasn't been overlooked at all.
"Everybody has to make free throws," said guard Craig Sword after going 1-of-6 Saturday. "I've been shooting free throws since the game was over, they've been laying on my conscience." Yet it isn't lack of practice by anyone, or ability as prior games prove.
So Ray won't harp on this aspect. As to turnovers the only answer is just be more careful, though too much caution might have set Borchert up for a five-second call that gave the Tigers their first go-ahead shot. What the coach is pushing for this matchup is going harder to the glass at each end, and keep cool in a hostile environment.
"We'll address some things. The thing we'll talk about is how to conduct ourselves. We don't want any sort of incidence on or off the court. We want to be sure we keep our heads cool. And our guys will be excited enough to play."
And, to put a lost week behind. "Everybody has been disappointed, we know we gave our best effort but in coach's eyes he didn't feel we gave it our all," said Sword. "So we need to fix that."
Wednesday's game time is 8:00 for CSS late telecast.