The game is part of this year's Big 12/SEC Challenge. For Ray the name of the conference involved isn't the big deal, but that State is playing someone from a major league again. "We get a chance to prove ourselves against a BCS-team, here at home," Ray said today. "We failed our first test against quality competition, so we get a chance to see where we really are as a basketball team."
That test was at Utah State nearly two weeks ago now, and while the Bulldogs had some good stretches the hosts took an 87-68 decision. So after five home wins over lesser-league guests Ray is ready to get a better test. TCU is 4-3 pending this first-ever meeting of the program, though Bulldog folk do know Frogs coach Trent Johnson after his stint at Louisiana State.
Ray has a good idea what to expect. "You're going to see a team that keeps you out of transition. They make you play half-court basketball. They don't make mistakes on the offensive end and give you opportunities to go fast-break. If they don't have anything, they pull it out and play what I call power basketball. They're going to get the ball in the paint."
Which is exactly the sort of opponent Mississippi State seems least-suited for given the well-known lack of post personnel. The three players Ray has at disposal for the frontcourt are good ones to be sure, as long as they are on their game…and on the court, not sidelined by fouls. Combining those factors is why center Gavin Ware has suddenly struggled after an impressive start to the sophomore season.
Ware was averaging a double-double through his first four games, 16.5 points and 14.0 rebounds, and dominating at each end of the floor. Even at Utah State he provided 19 points and ten boards. But since returning home Ware has scored just four total points and was shut-out entirely by Loyola on 0-of-3 shooting. Fouls were an issue that time, but Ware also wasn't feeling his sharpest in the Jackson State game and let it impact attitude and aptitude on the court.
Ray has seen Ware slipping into some bad habits in the low-post lately, mostly catching the ball when flush with a defender and unable then to make quick moves at the basket. "He has to figure out a way to get the ball in the post at an angle, so he doesn't have to worry about the double-team. He has to make a post-move and that means dribbling, and that allows a secondary defender to come over and help."
That looms larger than ever this game as Ware will be matched against a really big guy in 6-9 Amric Fields. But this isn't a typical low-poster. "He's one of the rare guys that's a true center, and can step out and make threes," Ray said. There has been some question if Fields is available for Thursday; Ray said he expects the Frog post to play and is preparing that way regardless. Which means Ware will have the challenge of not only matching a top-notch opponent personally but playing defense without fast fouls and frustration.
What has kept State winning during Ware's two-game slump is the burst given by forward Rocquez Johnson, with 31 points on 8-of-13 shooting in these close victories and 15-of-20 work at the foul line. Ray credits the sheer energy junior Johnson brings off the short Bulldog bench.
"He's making plays on the ball, and he does he has a chance to increase his scoring. The other thing is he's finishing around the rim. And, he's making his free throws." In the last two wins Johnson has been best with Ware on the bench, but Ray says not to read anything other than coincidence and matchups into that fact. Besides, "We only have a three man post rotation," Ray reminds.
The third man, forward Colin Borchert, has had his own recent slip after a three-game stretch with 43 points and eight made-treys. The senior went 2-of-8 against Loyola and 1-of-6 at the arc before fouling out. Still his outside capacity has served to free teammates closer to the goal on offense, where good passer Borchert is finding them.
The decisive factor in those tense wins though was the Dog who is equally at home inside or outside. Guard Craig Sword had perhaps his best Bulldog team yet Sunday with 24 points, including the clutch baskets in overtime. He also had the decisive plays to beat Jackson State, and as a result was named SEC Player of the Week. "It's an accolade well-deserved," Ray said. "He's been clutch for us down the stretch in two close ball games."
Indeed Sword's explosive and often just plain frantic style has made the difference. It does come with risks, as the sophomore will take low-percentage shots and outright dangerous drives in traffic. He averages more fouls in fact than center Ware and always seems operating on the verge of disaster. But then he did the same as a freshman, Ray said.
This year, so far, the results of such daring are trending more positively. "Last year it was a spectacular play or a turnover," Ray said. "If he continues to progress like that, he's going to be a problem. The next step is to become a better jump-shooter."
Perimeter offense is indeed an issue for the entire team, at 31.9% from the arc. At the same time State is playing good perimeter defense, holding foes right at 30% there. And if Borchert is the only reliable outside shooter in the starting lineup, senior swingman Tyson Cunningham and freshman guard Jacoby Davis have been able to give some three-pointing as substitutes.
Progress is also showing at the point. In fact Trivante Bloodman is bidding for most-improved player with a 17 assists, five turnovers rate to date. "Last year in a stretch like that it'd have been five assists and 17 turnovers," Ray said, not joking at all.
Ray also hopes to reinforce the point position soon as freshman I.J. Ready returns from a hamstring injury suffered in the second game. Ready finally got back to five-on-five practicing this week, with contact allowed, and the results were encouraging. But, "The biggest thing is not what he can do, but how does he feel after practice," Ray said. "Today is the measuring stick." Ray would not say Ready is ready for Thursday's game yet, but added the rookie is not ruled out for the game either.
Ray is preparing to win this game but will also be evaluating the team's work in several areas key to preparing for SEC season. "The thing I'm still most concerned about is our defensive effort," he said, in terms of allowing 44% shooting and giving away far too many offensive rebounds for comfort. That does reflect concern in the post for fouling, yet Ray still wants the bigger Dogs to play consistent defense all the same.
"We're still trying to make sure what we want out of our offense. I've tweaked and changed some things, to include more ball screens." This, Ray said, to make better use of Sword's athletic skills as well as to spring Borchert free for jumpers.
The good news though is that Mississippi State will approach their second big-league team matchup with a little more confidence than the first one, and not just because they're on the home court. "I don't think we would have won those games last year," Ray said of the last two victories. "Because of our inexperience and lack of depth we probably would have found a way to lose those games.
"That gives our guys confidence no matter who the opponent is. And we've had guys step up and make some big plays."