Dogs Keep Shooting To Snap SEC Streak

Their coach wasn't trying to wet-blanket anyone at the time. He just wanted to alert his team how a two-win beginning to conference season could quickly, and completely, go the other direction. So what do the Bulldogs now think or Rick Ray's January warning? "I think it's sunk in," Fred Thomas said.

It certainly has. That 2-0 SEC start has crumbled into an eight-loss league streak for Mississippi State, and Ray's threat of a 2-16 finish is too uncomfortably real. Meaning, the Bulldogs have now to focus on the immediate.

"It's really on the verge of being that way," Thomas said. "But we can change it, starting Wednesday."

This mid-week would be a fine time to change State's pace, though the schedule maker has not been kind. Wednesday brings Missouri (17-6, 6-4) to Humphrey Coliseum. The Tigers have had their ups and downs this first winter in the SEC and have fallen back out of the rankings. But this remains a team on track for the post-season and with potential to do some damage there.

Mississippi State (7-15, 2-8) has no such aspirations and realistically hasn't since the holidays. The season is already down to playing for pride, for development, and to grab any available wins.

Of course as a player, Thomas sees every game as a potential W. "Coming into this next game I think we should get this win," the freshman said. "We're going to go into practice and work hard, watch film, and figure how to get this win."

There's a lot to figure out. Missouri features the second-highest-scoring offense (SEC games) in the league and the third-best shooting squad. Only three conference clubs have made more treys in SEC action, and nobody gets to the glass better. The return of forward Laurence Bowers to health is key to the Tigers' second-half season, as he averages 14.9 points in league play and is the top shooter by percentage at 56.5%.

It's a balanced lineup as well with Bowers back. Alex Oriakhi holds down the inside while contributing 11.1 points and 8.6 rebounds. At crunch-time guard Keion Bell should have the ball because he's the SEC's best free-thrower at 88.3%. But the key to everything is junior quarterback Phil Pressey, who when not scoring 12.6 points issues 6.9 assists. And one-third of his baskets come from beyond the arc.

Mississippi State hasn't much to compare in those areas. For that matter the Bulldogs have even less to work with at the moment after the surprising suspension of junior guard Jalen Steele prior to leaving for their Florida game. No details are forthcoming on the whys or how longs. No imagination was needed to forecast what losing the only scholarship veteran on this roster meant either on that road trip or any other game Steele is sidelined.

"It was pretty disappointing," Thomas agreed. "But we still have to go out and compete, so that's what we did." All things considered the Bulldogs did compete, best they could be expected, against the #2-ranked Gators in a 83-58 loss. So as Thomas says, whatever the setbacks they keep playing the games.

"We just talk to each other, coach tells us to keep fighting. That's all we can do, is keep fighting and don't give up."

Thomas certainly keeps up his own efforts. He's leading the squad in scoring for the season as a whole, though classmate Craig Sword sets the SEC-play pace. For that matter ‘effort' is the best description of Thomas' game, for both better and worse since his all-out style can get him in trouble. But it also allows the gifted frosh to make plays this team needs. His 31 treys are best on the team and he's a single steal behind Sword; both are among the league's better thieves.

Unlike Sword though, Thomas does his deeds off the bench. It's no slur on his talents, just an apt commentary on the club that Ray has to platoon his players practically from tipoff. In fact it is something of a miracle that despite just nine, or more recently eight, scholarship players available no Dog is in the SEC's top-ten for minutes played. Though this obviously plays havoc with any on-court consistency, it does have enough—barely—bodies available by game's end.

Regardless of Steele's status, Thomas is sanguine about the situation. "I feel we're going to have to struggle throughout the season because of the depth. And the hard practices we're having." Which, he adds, are often tougher than actual games since there aren't enough Bulldog bodies for 5-on-5 drills much less subbing and switching.

"When I came here, I didn't expect it to be like this," Thomas said, meaning either in how much immediate playing time he received or the over-stresses on the roster. But opponents expecting a ground-down squad will be disappointed. "We're just playing with each other," Thomas said. "It's not a one-man team, we play together and play smart and play tougher than the other team."

Tough enough that a week ago the Bulldogs were a single second-half play away from snapping their skid. An overtime loss to Texas A&M and last-shot defeat by LSU, both in the Hump, ought to have left them entirely deflated. Not so, which is an impressive achievement in its own right.

Mentally, said Thomas, "We're still good. We just have to keep working hard even with all the players we've got. We've got to stick with each other and we'll be good." Besides, this is a Missouri team oh-fer their road trips, so there's a hint of optimism for pre-game planning.

This doesn't downplay the frustrations to be sure. Thomas still believes that in spite of all the setbacks, and the wholesale reliance now on first-year Dogs, there is a maturity level on the team to keep it together these remaining weeks. "But if we can keep fighting through it, it can't stop us from competing."

"I wouldn't say sad, or made, we can't be that way. But if we want to win games we have to stay positive."

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