Being back in the Hump sets up nicely for this matchup. Florida A&M is only 2-7 and has yet to win a road contest. The Rattlers have themselves been on break since December 7. This is only the third meeting of the programs, with Mississippi State taking wins in the 2002 and '05 seasons; both at home. MSU is 5-0 against MEAC clubs.
Ray shuffled his starting squad for Friday's game, though the revised lineup didn't last long. Having taken over at small forward Dre Applewhite turned an ankle in the opening minute. Fortunately he returned soon and is available again. A more serious concern at the time was when another new starter, big forward Rocquez Johnson, went down with a knee injury. He did not come back in that game.
Reports are that Johnson wasn't seriously hurt and will play per usual. Whether he starts is another matter, though Ray liked how that new lineup—the fourth tried this season—began the game with better defensive energy. "He's our most active frontcourt player," Ray said. Though the coach added this brings its own risk as activity can lead to early fouling. The risk seems worth it if Johnson's defensive effort helps gets games going under better control.
"I was very pleased with the way those guys came out and competed on the defensive end."
The missed minutes makes judging how Johnson's start could impact his offense, which off-the-bench had been a strong point. And offense is an obvious issue with most of this team most any time of a game. Johnson's big-forward alternate Colin Borchert has been in a serious December slump. After ending November with 44 points in three games, Borchert has scored 23 in the last four games on 8-of-23 shooting. And what had been his trump card, the three-pointer, has gone off at 2-of-15 in the same stretch.
Just as dramatic and more troubling is the drop-off by center Gavin Ware. He averaged a double-double in the first four games of his sophomore season, but since has contributed 5.5 points and 6.0 rebounds the last four contests. It isn't all Ware's doing either; defenses have dropped into tighter coverage of the team's best and only true post-scorer and limited him to only 23 shots in four games. Ray stresses Ware working for better angles in the post to create shots, but double-teams are tough to beat even in the best of matchups.
What has kept the Bulldogs going is the almost single-handed contributions of Craig Sword. The soph guard has been sizzling of late, scoring 24, 24, and 22 points; the first Dog to go 20-plus in three-straight games since Arnett Moultrie in 2011. If Sword can extend that another game he'll be up there with a real legend, since the last Dog to score 20 or more in four-straight outings was none other than Jeff Malone in 1983.
"I've been feeling pretty good going into these games and playing with confidence," said Sword. "I've been in the gym every day getting a lot of shots up. Coach told me be patient, last year I was forcing a lot of shots, this year I've settled down and let the shots come to me."
That's true. The points are impressive enough but it is Sword's efficiency making the scoring more remarkable. He's shot 26-of-35 in this three-game run…not surprisingly by limiting his long attempts. Sword has taken just three treys in three games and made two of them.
"He's making better decisions on penetration," Ray said. "And we've changed some things we do offensively, and him coming off the ball screen is just a problem for the other team."
What remains a problem for the Bulldogs is long-range offense. They were able to get away with just eight such attempts against a small Southeastern Louisiana team. But 30% accuracy at the arc still isn't going to shake opponents out of a tight zone, especially if Ware continues to struggle to get shots.
Encouraging signs are improving work on the boards by the Bulldogs. And this team tops the SEC in steals, led of course by Sword. Ray is also glad to see turnovers going down and assists picking up, though with Sword creating so much on his own that latter category is tough to judge. Playmaking ought to improve further as freshman guard IJ Ready gets back into playing rhythm after a game-two hamstring injury. In his place Trivante Bloodman has been a capable organizer and even provided a few points.
There is one other area Ray is concerned with. "The thing we have to do now is our guys start feeling better about themselves after these wins. I know we've got some problems but I told our guys we're 6-2. We've made some jumps and strides and you need to start feeling good about yourselves."
The Bulldogs need all the edges they can find because the pace picks up. Thursday brings another home game, against Florida Gulf Coast with a 8:00 tipoff. Then it's off to Las Vegas for the weekend and a two-day tournament. State has drawn South Florida for a 7:00 tip on Sunday; round-two will be against either host Nevada-Las Vegas or Santa Clara.
"We've been practicing hard, and we're ready for the Las Vegas trip," Sword said. "But we're going to focus on the next two games coming up."