Given the shape of this season, just any sliver of good news is that overwhelming welcomed at Mississippi State. Even being able to operate a simple practice drill. The larger trouble remains though. Ray still has just eight players, scholarship or walk-on, for the next game. Which just happens to be at Kentucky this Wednesday evening (7:00ct, SEC Network).
Moreover, regardless of roster size State (7-19, 2-12 SEC) has not been able to walk off a court winners since January 9. The Bulldogs are on a twelve-league-loss streak, longest in program history; and the overall losing streak of 14 games set all the way back in 1955 is unfortunately within reach.
A trip to Lexington is not the best way of snapping such strings. These Wildcats (19-8, 10-4) aren't of last year's championship caliber. And they might be among the few NCAA teams with less combined experience in the lineup than State. But the differential in ability is as pronounced as the respective records…and the fact Kentucky isn't absolutely assured of a tournament berth does insure a prepared home team Wednesday.
"For me, personally, I'm looking forward to playing at Rupp Arena," Ray said. "I'm a college basketball fan so I'm excited about bringing a team to Rupp." State last won on Kentucky's court in 2009. Another such road victory is admittedly a long shot, but this is the job. "What we're trying to do is find the weaknesses Kentucky has and try to exploit them. Now are we good enough to exploit them? For some it would be yes and some of them no."
For some road games lately the Bulldogs have played a more competitive brand of ball than at home. They still lost but were within four points at Alabama late before an eight-point final. Even at LSU the 80-68 margin was reasonable under circumstances.
But back home, State failed to maintain any semblance of momentum. Ten days after being romped by Missouri, the Dogs fell behind Vanderbilt by 17 points before ever making a basket. Any good from prior games was banished in a 72-31 outcome that saw the fewest points scored by a State team in the shot clock era.
"I was pleased with how our guys competed at Alabama, then that ugly thing called turnovers reared its head again," Ray said. "Then against Vanderbilt I thought the first four to eight minutes we did a really good job defensively and took some things away. Then, they started a high ball screen-and-roll and we had a difficult time guarding it." Which allowed a mediocre Commodore club to shred State from the arc on one end.
And completely control the glass on the other with a 51-17 final rebound margin. The sheer enormity of that imbalance defied Dog belief. "But the thing that happened was, we simply couldn't score," said Ray. "I thought we got some good looks in our motion offense, and just couldn't knock them down."
That put things mildly; after making 46% and 42% in the road losses, the Dogs were under 18% on the home floor against a not-terribly-tough defense. It was 2-of-19 at the arc with Vanderbilt daring State to keep shooting there, while packing the lane against driving shots or center Gavin Ware.
"Jalen, Fred, Colin had some opportunities. Gavin really didn't," Ray said.
The result is after 26 games no Bulldog is averaging double-digits for the season. Only guard Craig Sword is for SEC season at 11.1 points. Again it isn't for lack of shots; in the last six SEC losses State has averaged just under twenty trey-tries. They've made 19%. But the only way to draw defenders out is to make those shots.
Though, Ray said, Ware can help his own cause by holding his ground better. "It's getting Gavin to understand what the other team is doing and how can he combat that." Such as sealing his defender better, and just not getting moved out of the line. Ware has his talents but the more dribbles taken increases the turnover risk. And, the time extra defenders have to double him up.
Ware must keep carrying extra load around the goal with the ongoing suspension of forward Rocquez Johnson which began at Alabama. "When we get back we'll determine his status," Ray said. Otherwise when big forward Colin Borchert and Ware aren't together a guard has to play the four-spot. This comes at a cost to rebounding muscle of course.
But explaining the awful margin against Vanderbilt goes beyond matchups. Lack of scoring hurts everything, everywhere, Ray sees.
"The thing that is hard for us right now is when we don't have success on offense it turns over to the defensive end. We just don't fight through it. I don't think that's uncommon, but losing so many games and getting blown out, our guys get defeated." Mentally he meant, though grinding frustration wears away at the limited amount of available bodies.
Schematically Ray insists the approach of physical defense and attacking offense can work. "We haven't had success doing it because we simply don't have the numbers," he said, comparing the results to investing in struggling stocks. "When you're losing it's hard for somebody to keep buying into it."
The Bulldogs have four regular season dates left to buy, borrow, or just steal a win of any sort. They return to host Ole Miss on Saturday at 4:00. So for another two weeks the coaches will keep scheming, and the players continue shooting. The results will determine if there is something everyone can smile about.