"You want guys to try to figure some things out on their own without you explaining every single time," said Ray following Monday's first of 30 practices prior to the 2013-14 season. "There were a couple of times we were going back-and-forth and there were only four guys out there, or three, or there were three fives instead of a five and a four. And I want that. I want those guys to try to figure out some things out on their own. But I want them doing it at a fast pace."
Ray came away from day-one satisfied with the pace. Of course he probably would have been happy on this opening day of season-two just from having a better-stocked squad to work with. After struggling through his first year with a short roster, Monday was something of a revelation. Though, Ray qualified that body count.
First, senior center Wendell Lewis and redshirt freshman guard Jacoby Davis continue rehabilitating from last year's injuries and weren't practicing. Which was not like having a day off, Ray said.
"Whatever they do with them on the sideline make sure they're attacking it as much as possible. I'm not a trainer or strength coach, just when I look over there I want to see them sweating!" Senior forward Colin Borchert "had a little bit of a back issue but he was ready to go, he practiced full," said Ray. "But that was really it."
As for an otherwise-ready roster, sure there are more people crowding the court than a year ago at this time; much less what State had dressed out by February. "When you look at it, it looks like a lot of options. But a lot of those guys are walk-ons! So it's good having those bodies out there but how many bodies are actually going to play for you? That's where it kind of gets misconstrued a little bit."
What isn't, is the way Ray plans for everyone to play. Practice, too. And here having more and healthy bodies does count because the coaching staff could push, push, and then push some more all afternoon without wearing everyone down. For that matter, the assistant staff and managers aren't needed as practice participants any more.
So, said Ray, opening day of camp could proceed full-speed. And he does indeed mean speed, since that is how Mississippi State is supposed to play this winter.
"It's kind of like now the offense in college football, the only way you can play fast is if you practice fast," Ray said. "So I think that's the thing we have to make sure we're doing when we're practicing; all of our drills, when we're doing our fast-break things, it's got to be fast tempo."
That tempo is possible not just because more bodies are here but from some added personnel. Rookie point guard I.J. Ready for one, who can push the pace in both directions as needed and let soph guards Craig Sword and Fred Thomas play their more natural backcourt positions. Ready also pressures returnee Trivante Bloodman as quarterback candidates while Davis recovers.
Of course Sword, Thomas, et.al. had no problems getting end-to-end their first season with State. All Bulldogs liked what Ray's free-wheeling offense called for just fine. Producing points was another matter, as well as higher-percentage shots. These are the aspects Ray plans to address more in-depth over the course of the six-week preseason. For now, the coach is allowing a looser rein…as long as the effort is always there and always obvious.
For one day, the results were positive per Ray.
"The biggest thing I wanted was guys to come in with some exuberance about practice. I wanted them excited about the first day of practice. Because it's a long haul, like you said a marathon. If guys are coming in the first day kind of dreading practice then you've got no chance. But the guys came in with a lot of excitement and enthusiasm and that's what I was looking for."
Some of this excitement—or enthusiasm if one prefers—was natural for a first day in a complete team setting, after weeks working in smaller groups. But there was another incentive involved, which Ray saw contribute to a good pace.
"I told them there's two components for them having shorter practices, one is playing hard. And for the most part our guys do that so that's not a problem. The second component is listening. Sometimes you have to re-explain drills and cuts over and over again and that's what drives practices on. We want to have shorter, crisp practice and we did a pretty good job of it. But we've got to open our ears and listen so we don't have to re-explain things."
Not that these coaches won't spend at least some of the remaining 29 practice days explaining and re-explaining. It's still a youngish roster Ray has at his second-season disposal, all the younger with the September decision of senior Jalen Steele to drop off the team. Lewis is the lone remaining player from the previous regime now, and other senior-ity resides in juco transfer Borchert and longtime walk-on Tyson Cunningham.
So Ray knows the underclassman flavor will still show, a lot, before the Bulldogs tip it off in November. But a good start still counts and Monday provided just that.
"I thought our guys played hard. I think the pace of play was really good. There were some times, you know in a two-hour practice that's going to happen, where it drags down a little bit. But there was always somebody, a veteran like Tyson or Fred or Rocquez or Colin got it going again. So I thought the practice was really spirited. The thing I liked the most about it is we competed, guys went at each other. And that's what you need."