"We're really excited about playing this game in Tupelo," said Coach Rick Ray. "Ever since I got the job I've wanted to do something there, and we've made it come to fruition."
This game continues a Mississippi State trend of playing at least one ‘home' game off-campus during the inter-semester period. Though for the most part these contests have been moved to Jackson, where last year Ray's first team beat Central Arkansas. In seven of the previous eight years State teams played in the capitol city, following the most recent trip to Tupelo.
That was December 2003 when the eventual SEC Champions whipped New Orleans 77-59 at BancorpSouth Arena. State also played in Tupelo in Decembers of 1997 and '98 with wins, for a 3-0 record so far. Since 1997 Bulldog teams are 15-0 in these off-campus home games whether played in Tupelo, Jackson or twice in Southhaven. Ray intends to keep playing at least one such game each season though he wants to rotate them between Jackson every-other year and Tupelo, Southaven, and possibly Biloxi in the future.
For the present, the coaches have kept their players as busy as practical during exams. "You also have to get prepared for an opponent," Ray said. "It's trying to find that fine line between getting work done and being prepared for the game."
Ray and staff had been working both sides of that line since the last game, a 71-61 home loss to TCU. It snapped a seven-win home streak for State but this wasn't the concern for the coach. Ray saw most of the same issues that had made preceding victories over Jackson State and Loyola a lot closer than necessary.
Primarily defense or lack of it both consistently and at the beginning of games. Or both halves sometimes, as the Bulldogs just seem to start each period slowly. It caught up with them in the TCU game as the Horned Frogs built a big enough lead to withstand State's furious and little-too-late comeback. Ray sees two factors involved in why a team, to which defense is stressed daily, isn't setting a stronger pace.
Fouls, for one. The sheer total of personals called on Dogs isn't out-of-line with most teams. It is their timing, as State players in general and frontcourt players in particular have been drawing whistles a little too early for comfort. Ray then finds himself making moves almost immediately as pure postman precaution.
"I think we've got to do eve thing we can to protect those guys. I'm not taking them out because I'm upset, I'm taking them out so they don't get a quick second foul." This has kept lone center Gavin Ware available for whole second halves most of the time, though his absence certainly shows in the paint earlier. Forward Colin Borchert though has drawn 13 fouls in the last three games and played just 15 minutes against TCU.
Ray points out Borchert, who plays more on the wings than on the baseline, leads the team in personals. And, he is responsible for his own fouls more often than not. "He's got to put himself in better defensive position so he doesn't have to reach."
Ware has had a rough stretch since beginning the season brilliantly with three double-doubles and a 16.5-point average in the first four games. In the last three the sophomore has scored a total 13 points, on 6-of-17 shooting; and his rebounding has dropped as dramatically. Picking up a fast foul started the issues but frustrations are also showing now during games. Because Ware is finding himself stuck inside tighter defenses than back November.
"One of the things going on with us is people playing zone so much more," said Ray. "And it's because we haven't shot the ball well." The natural assumption is the coach speaks of outside shooting only; and it has not been good to be sure. Even in wins the Bulldogs are off from the arc, and in the last four games they are 11-of-47 or 23%.
However, to the obvious observer question about improving the long shooting or individuals getting more practice, Ray counters that the best way for this Bulldog team to beat a zone is getting Ware or forward Rocquez Johnson the ball in their best scoring spots. State isn't built to rely on three-pointing in the first place. But if the motion offense is run right can create one-on-one matchups for the bigger guys—and draw fouls from foes for a change—or open lanes for guard Craig Sword to exploit.
The sophomore has been on the attack anyway, with consecutive 24-point outputs on 17-of-24 shooting. He now holds the team offensive lead with a 14.3 average. What satisfies Ray more is how Sword has turned down all but one long shot in the last two games and worked for more makeable attempts. If Ware can work a little better for his own point-blank shots the zone will either shrink further or go away entirely.
Help appears on the way with running the motion and even hitting some outside shots as IJ Ready continues his comeback from a hamstring injury in game-two. Ready keyed that comeback last game with a trio of threes, but it is his point guard skills that count more. Yet Ray won't push the freshman too far too soon.
"He's where he needs to be at, and to get a good evaluation he needs to be truthful about what is going on with his body. He's such a tough kid, the last thing I want to do is prolong the injury. As long as he's honest we'll be able to get the rehab and training necessary."
At the same time Trivante Bloodman has done a nice job at point guard in Ready's absence, picking his shots wisely and posting a positive assists/turnovers ratio. In fact, "The one thing we have done this year is we're a much better passing team," Ray said. "We're nowhere near where we need to be but we've reduced our turnovers."
It is the thing State hasn't improved which Ray focused on during the slower week, which always comes back to defense. As he pointed out, "It's a mental thing as far as being wrapped-up in our offense, that can't dictate how we play defensively." As a result the coach hinted lineup changes are possible now, or what he'd rather call "different matchups and different personnel packages."
Which might focus on frustrating guard Fred Thomas. Since scoring 17 points against Kennesaw State in his first game of the season (he was suspended for the opener) the sophomore has totaled 28 points in five games on 10-of-36 shooting overall and 3-of-16 at the arc. His athletic gifts are evident but turning into production is lacking. Even one of his freshman strengths on defense is way down with just one steal in the last four games.
Ray sees other items of concern though one, free throwing, isn't really coachable. The Bulldogs missed half their free shots against TCU, enough to tie or win the game even. Some of this is anticipated since, the coach said, "Our two worst free throw shooters are the guys that get fouled most. But those guys aren't shying away from taking contact."
So while there's no guarantee, fans coming to Friday's game could see a different lineup or at least altered rotations. "Whether beginning of the game or end of the game we've got to look at what has us in the best positions."
The Bulldogs have a pair of home games next week (Dec. 17 Florida A&M, Dec. 19 Florida Gulf Coast).