As does just plain winning again, in State's current case. Mixed into the Saturday celebrating of finally enjoying some success was sheer relief that the losing streak was over. Thirteen setbacks in a row had taken a toll, but had not crippled the club completely as was feared.
"I'm just happy our guys have bounced-back from that," Ray said today. Ironically now the coach, who was away from campus Monday on recruiting-related business, now faces an interesting situation. A welcome one to be sure, but he has to remind the squad of upcoming games without cold-watering any ongoing emotions.
Take today's query about how, after being consigned to lowest seeding in the upcoming SEC Tournament, the Bulldogs could battle to as high—so to speak—as a #12 seeding. Ray understands the question of course. "We'll talk about it. The one thing we have to be careful about, no matter what happens we're still playing on the first day," Ray said.
"What you don't want to do is use something as a motivational ploy, and lose and have nothing to play for."
Maybe to observers and outsiders Mississippi State hasn't had much to play for beyond pride since January. Barring the unbelievable in Nashville next week the season ends there. Still a key to rebuilding is grabbing every possible positive and parlaying it into more. And by pure chance the Bulldogs face a final regular-schedule week of two comparable opponents, beginning with Wednesday's trip to South Carolina and concluding Saturday against Auburn. All three feature 3-13 league records.
But, one of Mississippi State's three victories was against the Gamecocks (13-16). It was waaaaay back on the opening day of conference season, in Humphrey Coliseum, and by a 56-54 margin. Success is success though, and the Bulldogs have that confidence factor in their favor.
Though Ray also cautions he cannot simply take that January 9 gameplan and bring it into a March 6 rematch. "I don't want to harken back to that win," he said. "Because what happened is we forced so many turnovers and scored a lot of points off the turnovers." Which made that game an anomaly by 2013 State standards; typically the Bulldogs have been giving and throwing the ball away more often and allowing easy opponents' points. Ray is not counting at all on South Carolina playing into State's hands the same way.
"So we're going to have to find another way to win the game, because I don't think South Carolina will turn it over that much against us. We're going to have to find a way to manufacture points."
Just as they did against the Rebels in another rematch, successfully so as the final score showed. For all the rivalry emotions and pride-playing, which the coach does not dismiss, the Bulldogs did basic basketball stuff to change the outcome from a 93-75 setback in Oxford. What was forgotten from round-one was simply that State scored 75 points that night, the most against any SEC foe all season.
That was something Ray counted on in round-two. "We just talked about the things we needed to do in order to have success against Ole Miss. We did score at their place, and that's been our biggest problem. We're not great defensively but (at times) we just can't score the basketball. At least we'd scored against Ole Miss."
What got fixed was Dog defense, most obviously on Rebel gunner Marshall Henderson. He still got 16 points but missed 15 of his 19 shots in the process and rarely had an open look at the goal unless bombing from 25 or more feet. Ray showed the squad their defensive mistakes in the first meeting, corrected them for the rematch, and the result was success.
The other factor was the return of forward Rocquez Johnson. Not just from his suspension, as obvious as that was; but a return to his early-season form when the sophomore was leading in scoring. Johnson did it in November and December not on set plays but just being around the ball and goal and putting them together. Hustle plays, Ray calls them. The sort of plays Johnson wasn't making against SEC defenses or at all when sitting out three games.
"Rocquez came back playing the way he hasn't been playing since the beginning of the season," Ray said. "He needed to be an energy guy for us and make hustle plays, not only for us to be good but for him to be good." Besides Johnson's ten points, he provided a badly-needed taller body on the front line against all the big Rebels. After having to use 6-2 Tyson Cunningham as a four or even five man, Johnson was a true post presence. He also helped center Gavin Ware avoid the foul trouble that crippled State early in Oxford.
Now even if it remains a limited roster, State is as full-strength as possible again going into the last scheduled games. Ray doesn't pretend to know exactly what mood the team will bring into practices this week. It should be upbeat sure, but…
"If anybody can figure out the psychological makeup of 18-to-21 year olds, I'd get out of coaching and go be a consultant!" And as far as dangling the prospect of a #12 SEC Tourney seed? "I hope I'm not over-speaking here. But I don't think our guys know anything about seeding at all. I think guys are so wrapped-up in school and what's going on with their girlfriend and the songs they download!" So the Mississippi State coach does not plan on talking about next week's tournament, that will come in due time.
For now, playing at South Carolina and hosting Senior Day for Baxter Price on Saturday is enough to hold team attention. Or should be, per the boss. "Hey, it's a basketball game. You should try to win it."