Johnson Suspension Latest State Setback

By now, the remaining encouragement is that Rick Ray is already witnessing the worst this transition process can throw at him and Mississippi State. "I'm learning about the job in droves," the first-year head coach said, after announcing the latest suspension. "Hopefully what will happen from this point is all the negative things that can happen get out of the way my first year."

The negative of this week is suspension of backup forward Rocquez Johnson, for an indefinite period and unspecified reasons. It follows the suspension of guard Jalen Steele which began three games ago also for I.D. and U.R. Expectations are Steele would return for Wednesday's trip to Alabama (7:00) aren't confirmed by Ray.

"Jalen's status is still to be announced."

The suspension of Johnson in itself would be a peripheral story most times. The sophomore forward, after a good start to this season against non-conference opponents, has had minimal impact in SEC play. His last three games have produced 3, 3, and 6 points and nine total rebounds, despite averaging over 24 minutes off the bench.

But this is a Mississippi State (7-17, 2-10) team with absolutely no margin for error, suspension, or injury, or anything else. Even at full-strength the roster has just seven recruited scholarship players and two more walk-ons available. Injuries have already depleted it to the danger point; now suspensions leave the Bulldogs major underdogs against anyone they face, even given the fragile state of SEC basketball this season.

For Ray, it is just the latest challenge in a long list. "I knew some bad things would happen," he said. "When you are coming in to a new situation and changing coaches there's going to be some attrition and changing philosophy. You never expect it to this degree."

"To me I'm learning on the job how to deal with things. But it's nothing I feel I'm unprepared for."

Maybe not. The same doesn't seem to hold true for some of the Bulldogs as far as fitting into this regime. Ray does report he's had no issues on the court, practice or game. "The suspensions have nothing to do with coaching style. It hasn't been a problem with discipline as far as backtalk and like that. Our problem is just a void of leadership."

This was not entirely unexpected of course, with most of last year's starting lineup gone and only two real veterans available for the first season together. And even those have had other setbacks; Steele missed eight games in November/December with injury, and senior center Wendell Lewis is out for the year after his mid-December injury.

Now for Steele to, surprisingly, earn a suspension while Lewis is sidelined throws ever-more burden on others. Like the jucos now starting. "Right now this team is void of any leaders," Ray said. "It's too much to ask incoming guys like Colin (Borchert) and Trivante (Bloodman), and especially the freshmen to provide instant leadership."

Yet this seems the situation when the sprinkling of older hands aren't offering it. Ray doesn't downplay what changing coaches later in careers can do to a player. But neither does he allow excuses. And in Mississippi State's case the old attitudes are lingering longer.

"What it is, is guys just getting used to what my expectations for them off the court. We all know what the expectations are on the court. It's them getting to know me. More importantly is they're trying to figure out how much can they get away with without being punished. With the older guys I think it's that figuring out how much they can get away with. The answer is, nothing."

Meanwhile Ray is, again, left patching what pieces he has both healthy and eligible into a lineup for the next game. In this case it is a rematch with Alabama, which beat the Bulldogs 75-43 a month ago. The blowout margin obscured that State, coming off two SEC wins, put up a competitive first half. They trailed 30-22 and ought to have been even closer if not for a few breakdowns before halftime.

The second period was a whole ‘nother matter. Alabama ripped off five-straight treys to open the period; while defensive pressure produced a string of Bulldog turnovers converted into easy points. Interestingly, today Ray said Alabama's run-and-jump defense and full-court pressure were not the problem. "We just had some unforced turnovers. It was a ball game up to the last three, four minutes of the first half."

Ray did agree that the barrage of treys deflated the Dogs. Still he plans to apply good points from round-one in preparation for the rematch. "It's more important to show them the way they played basketball the first 18 minutes, to have success. You have to show them the positives."

Replacing Johnson is another matter, as he was the only other big forward besides Borchert. And the latter often moves into the post when lone center Gavin Ware must sit down. The unavoidable result will be a guard matching up on an Alabama big body early, and often.

"There's no other choice. We're going to play Tyson Cunningham and Craig Sword at four-spot some, and do some things as far as switching and ball-screen action fronting the post. But we also have to figure out how to make a benefit for us offensively. The other team has to guard us, too." Meaning, Ray expects to use a small State lineup's speed and movement to pull Tide forwards away from the lane. At least that is the theory.

"We can't just look at it as a negative," Ray said.

Seeking positives from the latest loss, 80-68 at LSU, the coach noted just nine turnovers. And State shot 46% for the afternoon, best since a 48% showing also against those Tigers in a loss at Humphrey Coliseum. Still LSU was better at 55% overall and the same from the arc, 12-of-22; as well as taking a 12-rebound edge.

"I think we did more offensively to have some success against LSU, our defense just wasn't very good."

Offense, or defense, or whatever, the odds keep stacking up against Mississippi State as this season grinds to its end. The goals become ending the losing streak before it reaches record territory (14 straight in 1955), and showing some sort of progress to build upon. For one thing Ray figures the current freshmen can see their own opportunity to take charge of the program, even if ahead of schedule.

"First and foremost it shows those freshmen they can grow into a leadership position stating right way they don't have to matriculate to junior or senior." It might not do much for the rest of this season, of course. Still, "You've always got to find a silver lining or find a way to take advantage of something that's happening."

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