Ray Ready For Friday's Year-Two Tipoff

The greatest difference, and advantage, as a second-season coach? "Last year I didn't know what our team's individual strengths and weaknesses were," Rick Ray says. "This year, I know what our guys are."

This is the leading reason why Ray and Mississippi State will tip off the new season with renewed optimism. There are cautionary notes to be sure, but the trends for Bulldog basketball do seem turning in a better direction as they take the court Friday evening.

The opponent is Prairie View A&M, with gametime 7:00 at Humphrey Coliseum. There is no telecast but the game is available live-streamed on HailState.com.

"Obviously I'm really excited about getting the season underway," said Ray. "Our guys have had a great off-season preparing for this first game here."

The first real game, after Ray's Bulldogs routed Auburn-Montgomery in a Sunday exhibition. The tune-up game allowed this second-year squad to show some of their stuff, and stuffs, in a truer team context than practices. Though as forward Colin Borchert said, those have been more rugged than many games will be. Just as the off- and pre-season strength program was.

The work has paid off though as Ray sees a much better-fit club to begin a schedule with. "One of our goals was improving strength and conditioning to play physical and play tough. And they've done that." Center Gavin Ware, for one example, is down to a trim 262 pounds; while guard Fred Thomas is up from his freshman 180 or so to 195 and all of it the right additions. "And Chicken (guard Craig Sword) has put on ten more pounds of muscle," Ray said. "Hopefully these gains will pay off on the court."

What will assuredly pay-off is a longer bench of Bulldogs. Not a lot longer at the moment in scholarship terms with eight either healthy or eligible available. It will be nine when redshirted guard Jacoby Davis is finally cleared for full-speed, something expected later this pre-conference season. There are three new walk-ons at least allowing full five-on-five practices. That's where center Fallou Ndoye also comes in handy, as he sits out the whole season to be NCAA-eligible next year. His practice presence is valuable in itself.

But Ray would really rather have him active this year. Because for a second season, soph Ware is the sole center on the roster with no true backup. Adding in power forward, "Our front line is very thin," Ray said. "We only have three guys that can play that position." Those being Borchert and Rocquez Johnson as either the power or second big forward. In fact, "Andre Applewhite is going to be our third four-man," said Ray. "But we don't want that to happen."

Based on scrimmages and exhibitions, Ware and Borchert will be in the starting five and four spots Friday with Thomas and Sword in the backcourt. Or actually anywhere on the court their versatile skills and energy takes them. Thomas is the nominal three-man and practically playing three positions depending on how the ball moves at either end. Ditto Sword, who this sophomore season should be freed from the point guard duties Ray was forced to concede last season.

Thomas and Sword epitomized much of what was lacking in the 2012-13 season in playing out of so many positions…and what is raising optimism for the second season together. There isn't a more athletic tandem in the SEC, and their creativity is key to making Ray's free-flowing motion offense schemes work. The difference this time around, Ray says, is transforming hard experience both Bulldogs gained as unleashed freshmen and channeling it more productively.

And efficiently. Sword is most certainly not a point guard, as his 127 turnovers showed last year (Thomas had 49). But Ray still wants the now-soph to have the ball in his hands after somebody else sets the floor for him. "We've really concentrated on Chicken reducing his turnovers, to give himself a chance to be a good player and us a good team." And though it might sound strange to fans, a more muscular Thomas should be a better ballplayer. "Hopefully that will help him making good decisions," Ray said, noting how easy Thomas was to knock off-stride or out-muscle for loose balls.

Bluntly, "We can't be that bad protecting the ball and be any good." By the same token Sword and Thomas were a productive pair on defense with 55 and 56 steals respectively, and the entire team had the fourth-most steals in MSU history while playing a shorter season.

This however points to a potential problem courtesy of the NCAA. They have mandated officials limit hand-checking on defense to loosen-up the floor. State was very much hands-on defensively last season, both out of necessity and from Ray's own coaching background. Ray is very aware that he's got to change the approach now or run out of players before the horn sounds.

"What we've done is have a lot of games in practice, brought in officials for our practice quite a bit," Ray said. Still, "The last thing you want to do is coach your team how to foul." But the grabbing and groping of last winter is over and Dog defense must adjust.

"We simply can't do some of those things any more. It doesn't make sense to put our guys in harm's way when we know depth is a concern."

Ray can move Sword off the point because he has a true quarterback now, in IJ Ready. It took the first minutes of one scrimmage to show the 5-11 freshman is up to the opportunity. "IJ has prepared himself to have success by what he's done in practices, in the weightroom," Ray said. "If he continues to do those things off the court he will have success for that reason."

With Ready taking charge, junior Trivante Bloodman becomes backup point. Senior Tyson Cunningham will spell Thomas or if needed either of the forwards in a ‘small' lineup again. Then again the Bulldogs spent a lot of ‘small' time last season.

Which was one reason they were last in SEC rebounding margin, despite what Ray often saw was steady defense forcing misses. So chasing down defensive boards has been a preseason priority. Upgrading a SEC-worst offense? Yes, that too. And while Ray doesn't want a reliance on longballs in the motion offense, this team can't afford to make less than five treys per game. For contrast, the Dogs made 151 three pointers all season compared to 300 for Florida.

"If you have a good driving or posting team and can't make three-point shots, teams pack it in on you. In those games you have to make jumpshots." Ray is hoping a real point guard to distribute aids the outside shooting of Sword and Borchert, while Thomas ought to be a better marksman than he showed last year.

"We were one of the better teams in the nation as far as causing steals and turnovers. We didn't finish because we didn't make good decisions. The other thing is guys have to make shots, we had opportunities and guys moved the ball around, we just didn't make shots."

And making shots makes the roundball world go, well, around. There were hints last February and March things were falling into places, when State won three of the last five games including a SEC Tournament victory. Certainly the Dogs quieted the foolish February talk that they were the ‘worst SEC team ever'.

But escaping the cellar was only a small first step. Ray wants to build on that late show of momentum to begin this second season.

"I always felt we were turning the corner, it was we had to put it together. Our guys are never afraid of the moment. I know we where young but I never felt in the huddle at Kentucky, Florida our guys were afraid," said Ray. Nor for that matter was he as a first-time head coach.

"I never felt overwhelmed by any stretch of the imagination. The one thing I need to do is simplify the game for our guys."

How much progress has been made in that direction, the Bulldogs begin showing Friday. They will also have home games November 14 (Kennesaw State) and 9 (Mississippi Valley State).

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