"Obviously I'm disappointed with the loss we had," Ray said. "But I thought it was beneficial to our team, because we got to play against a quality opponent, in a hostile environment."
The Utes were definitely an upgrade from State's earlier victims of Prairie View, Kennesaw State, and Mississippi Valley. Few figured the Bulldogs would get out of Logan with a win way back when the long road game was scheduled, to be fair. Ray figures the experience will still pay off over this team's longer season haul.
"Our guys needed that competition," the coach said. In fact, "They needed to get humbled. They were starting to ‘feel themselves' a little too much."
Ray's comment comes across as surprising on the surface given who these Bulldogs had beaten, and that all three lightweight foes did push them in stretches. The fact that they were a ten-win team all of the previous season seemingly gave less reason to feel cocky. Yet the second-year coach said he wasn't at all surprised at a little strutting from his squad.
"No, because they're kids. And we're still really young and inexperienced. It was something that needed to be done. Talking about the season last year and how we finished, our guys felt a positive vibe about them. They had immediate success and get arrogant about who they are."
With reality now checked, the Bulldogs can approach Jackson State more objectively. And should. The Tigers are 2-4 coming off a win at Tennessee-Martin, and looking like an entirely new operation. Coach Wayne Brent might be in his first season in charge on Lynch Street but he's a very familiar face to Bulldog folk after his years coaching high schools in the central state as well as a stint at Ole Miss. His arrival at JSU could signal a change ahead in the SWAC power structure.
Ray, still relatively new himself to this state's roundball circles, can see how much has changed for this opponent. Most obviously the discipline with which these Tigers perform. "They aren't going to beat themselves, they're going to make you play," Ray said.
There's even a familiar face in the Tiger lineup with former Arkansas guard Julysses Nobles now leading his new team with 15.8 points and 3.8 assists. "Offensively they've got a couple of guys who can really make plays," Ray said. "They run their offense well and look to attack the paint." On defense, Jackson State runs what Ray called ‘soft switches' that contain dribblers and limit lanes. So, "You have to beat them."
These programs last met in the 2010 NIT with State winning in Humphrey Coliseum for a 4-0 record against Tiger teams. Bulldog clubs are now 23-3 against all SWAC foes.
To beat Jackson State or anyone else will mean Mississippi State maximizing the big Dog. Sophomore center Gavin Ware is off to an excellent start, with three double-doubles in four games. He's averaged 16.5 points and 11.5 rebounds so far making two-thirds of his shots. It's not as if Ware were a secret weapon or anything coming into the second season, but the attention he is getting is magnified.
"And the thing about Gavin is now people are starting to gameplan against him," Ray said. "And our guys are doing a good job finding him in the post." This after a couple of nights the rest of the squad looked for their own openings first, it needs noting. Ray lectured them about centering the offense around their, well, center, and it has shown since.
"There's tape out there, he's a threat in the post, and we're still able to find him," said Ray. "That's an attribute to Gavin working hard and sealing but also guys looking to him."
Senior forward Colin Borchert has been Ware's complement with 12.8 points, scoring inside and outside alike. And junior Rocquez Johnson has been consistent off the bench with 9.3 points and 48% shooting.
The frontcourt's accuracy is necessary because other than Borchert outside accuracy is iffy at best. For that matter guards Craig Sword and Fred Thomas are a combined 28-of-69 overall. Both are athletes able to manufacture all sorts of shots, now it is again a matter of them picking the proper attempts. Though their games have been impacted by the game-two injury to freshman point guard IJ Ready, sidelined since by a hamstring and not expected back for at least another week Ray said.
"That's entirely in our trainers' hands, and we're going to err on the side of caution if anything." Fortunately junior Trivante Bloodman looks like an entirely different Dog this second season at State. Taking over again at point, he has 13 assists and just four turnovers while scoring 7.0 each game.
Redshirt frosh small forward Dre Applewhite has been a happy surprise as well, coming off the bench for 7.8 points and hitting the glass hard…something Ray is now obsessed with. He said defensive rebounding remains a concern after four games, as does basic field goal defense as State has allowed 46% shooting.
"That's nowhere near where it needs to be," Ray said. "Offensively we're fine." This because, the coach said, "We've simplified things on the offensive end and freed guys to just play basketball and make plays. Last year you could see the clock ticking in their heads instead of just going to play basketball."
There is one other concern which isn't easily ‘coached'. The Dogs are averaging 20 fouls a night, not a huge number for most teams but worrisome for a small-roster squad like State. Stricter backcourt rules meant to free-up play weighs heavier on the Bulldogs than most because Ray instilled a close defensive identity in year-one. Now he's having to pick between poisons, essentially.
"The rules have changed, and our depth on the front line has taken away some of our aggressiveness. But we have to find a happy medium. We have more depth on the perimeter so if we're going to foul I'd much rather it be a perimeter guy, because we do have options."
They also have a Sunday game ahead, hosting Loyola in the second edition of the ‘Game of Change' to commemorate Mississippi State's meeting with the Ramblers in the 1963 NCAA Tournament. Last year the programs re-matched in Chicago with Loyola winning. Tipoff is noon in the Hump.
So the Dogs will stick around after tomorrow's afternoon home game. But Ray is giving them the Thanksgiving holiday. "And get a chance to get some turkey."