How has this summer been compared to last summer? Everything was new to you last summer.
"Obviously, you have a little more certainty about what is going on with your program. And you are more familiar with your guys. Last summer, I was so unfamiliar with our team. We had incoming freshmen, junior college guys and the returning guys and I never had the chance to work with them. Now, I'm familiar with most of our guys, what they need to work on, how to press their buttons. Just that knowledge of our team makes a huge difference."
And, in turn, they know you as well?
"Yes, the expectation level for them is different now because they know what I expect as far as their work ethic when they set foot on the court. I think last summer we were still teaching that. This summer, we are able to teach more basketball and not just how they were supposed to play."
How about talking about each player and what you have seen from them now that you have been here a full year. The first one that comes to mind to me is Gavin Ware. What are your thoughts about him?
"The first and foremost thing with him is I was very concerned about him when he had his injury at the end of the season. He had to go into a cast and walking boot for about five weeks. He played the season at about 272 pounds. And I would like for him to play at 265. When he was working with Coach Akins, if he had a bad weekend with his weight, he could always come back in and work it off with Coach Akins. But with him going into inactivity for 4 to 5 weeks due to the cast or boot it was imperative that he diet correctly. If he didn't he wouldn't be able to come in and work it off with Coach Akins.
"I was really concerned about his weight during that time. But when he got out of that cast he weighed 270 pounds. To me, that was very important. Not so much about the weight but that it showed that he cared. It showed that Gavin wants to be good. It showed that he was doing everything that he could to be a good basketball player. Now, he has a chance to play at 265 pounds. And he just weighed in and he was 267 pounds.
"He's had a great off-season because his body has changed. His body fat has decreased. He is stronger. He was a puppy last year. Now, he is becoming a man. I'm really pleased with how he has approached the off-season."
Skill-wise, what are things you want to see Gavin do more often this coming season compared to what he did last season?
"We want to utilize Gavin's ability to make shots. Gavin is a good shooter from 15 feet. We want to do some things in our offense that will put him in situations where he can knock down that 15 foot, that 10 foot jump shot.
"The second thing with Gavin is we don't want him so concerned about his back to the basket moves. We tell him if he seals correctly and execute angles, then he should be able to drop step and execute angles and get easy scores. So, what we are working on with him during the off-season is working on him improving his sealing. If he improves that then he becomes a much more effective scorer."
Where have you seen improvement from Chicken (Craig) Sword?
"There are two areas in his offensive game that we want improvement. First and foremost he has to reduce his turnovers. His assist to turnover ratio was 1 to 2. It just can't be that way. And I've said this in the past, Chicken moving from playing point guard to exclusively playing two guard will reduce some of his turnovers. But I told Chicken at the two guard position you are still going to have to dribble and pass. So, the number 1 thing we want to do with him is get him to reduce his turnovers.
"The second thing we want is for him to become an effective jump shooter. I'm not just talking about threes. Obviously, we want him to be a better three-point shooter, but to me, his bread and butter has to be that 15 to 17 foot shot. He's such an effective driver and penetrator that he is going to have that opportunity to take two hard dribbles and pull up at 15 feet and have some space in order to make that shot."
What improvement have you seen from Fred Thomas?
"I think the thing that gets lost with Fred is people don't realize that he got cheated out of his off-season. Fred wasn't here at all last summer because he was trying to get his academics in order. Then he gets here and we find out that he had an injury. He has to have surgery, then gets into a cast then eventually into a boot. He got cleared to play the Thursday before the Saturday when we first started practicing. You are talking about a kid that still has to make the natural transition from high school to college basketball. Now, he's having to make that transition with no off-season strength and conditioning at all or being able to participate in the skill workouts.
"The first thing we had to do with Fred during the off-season was get him bigger and stronger. And I think Coach Akins has done a tremendous job with him. I think if I was choosing the winner of our off-season workouts the winner would be Fred Thomas. His work ethic on the court and in the weight room has been tremendous. The next step with Fred is taking the work ethic to when we aren't around. What I mean by that is you can lift all the weights you want to but you aren't going to get bigger and stronger unless you change your eating habits. We are trying to impress on him to take in as many calories as possible.
"The second step with Fred is realizing what is a good shot and what is a bad shot. He has put in all the work during the off-season to become a better basketball player. Now, the gametime decision-making about whether to turn down a shot or not turn it down is the next step. I really believe this; I don't think Fred's shooting is as much of a problem as is his shot selection. What I mean by that is his three-point shooting percentage will increase simply by taking better shots."
How about Jalen Steele? Where is he right now with his rehab?
"Jalen had that second knee injury. But fortunately for him, due to his first knee injury, he knows what it takes when he's going through rehab. He's ahead of schedule right now because he knows what it takes in rehab. And he's done an unbelievable job as far as being ahead of the game. That's the most important thing for him right now. The basketball part is secondary to him. But right now, he's on the court doing some things. He's in a non-contact situation. But cutting, moving, doing all basketball things, he can do those things.
Do you know when Jalen will be 100%?
"I don't know that for sure but they fully anticipate that when we start practice he'll be 100%. The only restriction that he will have is he will have to still wear a knee brace. But as far as doing five on five and having contact, the training staff expects him to be 100% when he starts practice."
How is Wendell Lewis doing?
"Wendell was further behind Jalen. His recovery has gone a little slower than we anticipated. And the thing I don't want to do is rush a kid back onto the court. Ultimately, while the off-season is important, it pales in comparison to him being physically able to play during the season We want to be fair to the kid because the entire reason he came back is because he wants to play games. So, his recovery has been slower but it's not because of him. We just want to be fair to him."
How has Colin Borchert improved during the off-season?
"I thought that Colin started figuring it out during the second half of the SEC season. I think he averaged about 14.5 points and 7.5 rebounds during the last 10 games of the season. I think it is unfair to junior college kids to think they are going to have an easy transition because they have played two years of college basketball. But I think he started to figure it out, figure out where his scoring opportunities were. I think that Colin is our most sound basketball IQ guy. He understands the game and what needs to happen on the basketball court."
What improvement have you seen from Trivante Bloodman?
"The one thing that Trivante doesn't have to improve on is his effort and toughness. I think everybody on our team appreciates that he is a tough kid and that he plays so hard.
"The thing that he needs to improve on is his outside shooting. I think there were a lot of times when the other team wasn't guarding him. And when they aren't guarding him, they are helping against Chicken's driving or on the post with Gavin. We have to get him where he becomes a true outside threat so we can play true five on five basketball.
"The second thing with him is in his junior college year he was able to drive in the paint and finish over the post players that were coming in to help. I think at this level he can't do that. We want him to dribble into the paint but we want him to find the open people in the perimeter."
What are your thoughts about Roquez Johnson?
"I think Roquez is starting to figure out who he is. Roquez didn't really play the previous season so he didn't know where he fit in college basketball on this level. I think the first step with him is figuring out where he fits as a person and as a basketball player. And I think he's starting to figure that out.
"The second thing with him is he has to continue to improve his skill development. He has to become a better shooter. He has to become a better lefthand driver. Right now, I think he is an excellent righthand driver but at some point in time people are going to force you to put that ball down and drive with your lefthand, He has improve in that area. But is it where we want it to be? No, but it will be something that he will continue to work on."
What improvement have you see from Tyson Cunningham?
"Tyson is a guy who comes in and works on his game the most. When I come up here on the weekend and I hear a ball bouncing on the court most likely it is Tyson. Now, the next step with Tyson, and I told him this, is bringing people in with him. Get workouts with the other players. That is the next step in him becoming a better basketball player."
What are your thoughts about Jacoby Davis?
"Jacoby has been 100% and has been cleared for full contact. The only thing he has to do is wear his knee brace. With him, it's the mental aspect of it. He's got two things he has work on, number 1, fight through the fatigue, and number 2, the mental aspect of it. He has to get over that mental hurdle of tearing his ACL and thinking that he may have lost a step."
What can you do with him to help him get past those two hurdles?
"The main thing is he's working with Coach Akins in the weight room. And he's done a tremendous job with him as far as doing some things on the court in improving his explosiveness. Doing things like speed ladders and hurdles. The other part of it will be just throwing him in the fray."
Is there any way you can do some contact work to help him realize that his knee is fine, maybe do drills that involve contact?
"We'll do that in our skill workouts but I don't do that much in the summer workouts at all. I want to make sure that in the summertime it's mostly non-contact. I want the summer to be about skill work and individual develop. We'll take care of the competitive part of it when we get into the fall."
What have you seen from Andre Applewhite and what are your expectations for him?
"Right now, we don't really know what we have with him. You never really know for sure until you see him on the court in a competitive 5 on 5 situation.
"But two things that we do know about him is he has a work ethic and he also has a high basketball IQ. He's a coach's son. He can be that kid that is a lock down defender for us. He has the physical size and strength to do that. Plus, he has that competitive nature and will to do that."
You have several walk-ons coming in including Dallas Prater. How good of a walk-on is he?
"I think he is a quality walk-on. I really do. But he will have his struggles as far as dealing with the size and strength of things right away. That is his biggest deficiency right now, size and strength. But I think once he has gotten bigger and stronger he has a chance to be a good, quality walk-on."
You have a couple of other walk-ons, Kyle Dobbs and Tevin Moore.
"Kyle is a kid who is in the same boat with Dallas. He needs to get physically stronger before he can help the team. Tevin is a kid who has a better chance of being able to come in and help the team right away because he is already a physically mature kid."
What do you do with a guy like De'Runnya Wilson, a dual-sport player who is on a football scholarship?
"I think the first and foremost thing is you respect the fact that he is in football right now. The second thing with De'Runnya ... and everybody calls him Bear, so I'll call him Bear. The second thing with him is he has to realize that he has to live up to his responsibility academically, too. It's hard enough to be a scholarship football player and be a student. Now, you are asking him to be a scholarship football player, a basketball player and a student. We don't want him to ever struggle academically because he is trying to play two sports. We have to figure it out, so time-management will be a key for him."
When will you be able to do anything with him basketball-wise?
"We have to let him get through the football season first. Then, once he's through with the football season, we'll all sit down and have a serious discussion about something that is actually doable with him. We would love to have him in basketball but we don't want that to take away from his football development or take away from his academics."
Have you ever been in a situation with a player before, where he is playing both football and basketball?
"Yeah, when I was at Clemson."
How did you work out it?
"First of all, (Clemson head football coach) Dabo (Swinney) was great. Newt Hopkins was the kid. He ended up being a first-round draft pick of the Houston Texans. Newt, who was a good basketball player in high school, wanted to play basketball in college. Dabo was fine with that. So, when they got through with their bowl game he came over and started playing with the basketball team and didn't participate in the strength and conditioning workouts with the football team during the basketball season. When our season was over with he didn't participate in our skill and individual workouts, he went back to practice with the Clemson football team."
I know you were really high on I.J. Ready. Now that you have seen him in person, what are your thoughts about him?
"The fact that I.J. did everything he could to be here for the summer 1 session was big. He took care of everything academically, all the paperwork the NCAA requires for eligibility. He did everything he had to do to be here for the first summer session. Him being here has been a huge benefit to him and to us.
"The second thing that is most impressive about I.J. is his work ethic. We haven't had to address him going hard in the weight room or in strength and conditioning or in any of the skill workouts. Usually, that's the first thing you have to address with the new guys coming into your program. That has been a zero problem with I.J. because his work ethic has been tremendous.
"The third thing with him is he has already shown leadership qualities. That is huge to me because a lot of new guys come in and just want to fit in and not ruffle any feathers. But he is a kid who has come in right away and shown tremendous leadership ability."
Have the other guys been receptive to him taking on a leadership role?
"I think so. The guys had a chance to play open gym when he first got here. I was sitting up here talking to Gavin and I asked him how open gym has been. He said, 'Coach, with I.J. you have to have your hands ready. You may not think you are open but he realizes you are open and he'll fit the ball in there.' That is a great comment and great to hear. What I am getting to is I think the guys will embrace his leadership qualities because they know what he can do for them on the court."
There are two signees left - Travis Daniels and Fallou Ndoye. What is the situation with both of them?
"With Travis, he took his last final this past Tuesday. He's done everything he needed to do in all the other classes. The Algebra class was the last one he needed to take. He took the final Tuesday. Now, we wait to hear the results of that grade. If he did what he was supposed to do, then he will be fine."
Fallou Ndoye is the other signee.
"We just got word yesterday that the NCAA has approved a waiver after they had initially denied Fallou's eligibility. But our compliance people did an unbelievable job of staying on top of it and handling the situation. We filed a waiver with the NCAA eligibility center and they approved it. What that means is he is going to be a redshirt player for us. He'll be able to fully participate in practice and skill workouts with Coach Akins but he won't be able to participate in games. And he'll still have five years of accountability. So, he'll still have four years after this season to play college basketball.
"But there are still some things to be done before Fallou can actually set foot on campus. He's still not 100% cleared yet. He still has to be cleared by Mississippi State so he can be admitted into Mississippi State and he still has to go through the NCAA amateurism eligibility center.
"From the Mississippi State standpoint it will be a fairly short process. From the NCAA amateurism standpoint you never know. But he can actually be on campus while the amateurism status is still up in the air."
[Fallou was cleared by Mississippi State for admittance to MSU Friday morning. Due to that, he is able to attend classes at MSU and participate in basketball activities other than play in games during the 2013-2014 season.- Gene]
How do you feel sitting out this year will help him?
"I think it will be the ideal situation for him because it was going to be tough for him to take some playing time away from Gavin and Wendell. If you have a chance to redshirt you are replacing maybe playing 3 to 5 minutes of playing time per game as a true freshman comparing to playing 30 minutes per game as a fifth-year senior."
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.