Florida Gulf Coast, a still-young participant in Division I basketball, was the March upstart story with a flamboyant run to the NCAA's sweet 16 round as a #15 seed. Four starters are back for the Eagles too, though this team is off to a 5-5 start on a season where everyone takes them seriously.
Game time is 8:00 at the Hump for the late CSS timeslot telecast. Richard Williams, who coached Mississippi State's only teams to reach the sweet 16 and a year later final four in 1995 and '96, will work the broadcast along with statewide radio show host Richard Cross.
Ray's Bulldogs not only are coming off a win—two of them actually counting a Friday victory over Southeastern Louisiana—but had all Wednesday to work on both the opponent and themselves. The second-year coach is using the between-semesters stretch to best effect. "We have to take advantage of the fact our guys are not in school at this time."
So State has spent the non-game-days doing double duty at practices. Morning sessions are individually focused, either on simple shooting from all ranges or on free throwing. Then the second session was about the team itself. But instead of emphasis on running plays Ray's objective is stopping them. Bulldog defense has been a sore point to the coach. And even to some of the players.
Take guard Craig Sword's post-win comment Tuesday. "This is one of our best defensive performances. But I know and my teammates know we can do better. We have to get stronger and our defense get better."
Ray says that even after nine games and months of pre- and in-season work on defense, he and by extension his team are still coming to grips with the new rules realities of college defense. A year ago the Dogs could bump and reach and even grab to slow offense down, legally. The rules change to cut this down has forced an adjustment for every coach, everywhere.
What complicates things for Mississippi State is not just entirely altering the defensive attitude, but lack of much margin for fast fouls. This is especially true in the post with just one true center and a couple of true forwards. After some bouts with foul troubles they seem to be adjusting as C Gavin Ware and F Colin Borchert have gotten through the last two wins without real officiating issues. But, in the process, their defense has gotten looser.
Borchert did improve this in some ways Tuesday as he only drew one foul in 29 minutes, and even blocked three shots with a couple of steals. Borchert's offense has dropped off from a fast November pace somewhat, though again the slump began when the whistles started blowing on him. Ray sees the senior figuring out that fine line.
"It's important he guard without fouling. He either guards and fouls, or doesn't guard. We have to have a happy balance of those two. He's a capable shooter and just needs to keep shooting." Borchert is also State's only really reliable outside shooter so far.
Ware has been in his own scoring slump since averaging a double-double the first four games. He's scored 31 points total in the last five games, but this reflects more the obsession opponents give State's lone center on defense. In the five-game slump he's only taken 31 shots after all. So some outside offense by teammates could loosen up the inside coverage on Ware.
This week's first win was encouraging in an unplanned way. The Bulldogs came out on top without big games from a pair of performers. Forward Rocquez Johnson did not play the second half against SELa with a hurt knee and only got in four first-half minutes Tuesday, without scoring. He should be available for longer duty tonight, and a return would certainly take some pressure off Ware and Borchert…or a least allow for substitutions.
That role in fact was filled against FAMU by big guard Dre Applewhite, who stepped in at big forward and came up big. The freshman provided his first double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds. "It's kind of a challenge, but I love challenges and take them head on. I see it as another opportunity to help this team."
Nobody has helped more this season than Sword. He had a brilliant first half with 15 points Tuesday, nine of them from the free throw line as the Rattlers could not cope with Sword's slashing style. He only got one second-half point and sat down late with cramps, so his streak of 20-point games stopped at three. Still his 15.3 points by-far paces the squad, and by attacking the goal instead of settling for jumpers Sword is shooting almost 57%.
His scoring average however would be even better if the free throwing was more consistent over the short season. Sword did make 10-of-12 charity chances and raised the average to 63%, which is the most obvious example why Ray has ordered the Dogs to practice this craft. A lot. "100, 200, free throws," the coach said.
Ray does say there are signs of defensive improvement. After TCU shredded State by driving for points, the last two opponents have been kept out of the lane for first shots. Second attempts off rebounds is another issue entirely, but the Bulldogs are making more stops. And the Rattlers only got to take 12 free shots as State wasn't fouling as often.
But Florida Gulf Coast is a different proposition, as they showed last March when earning the ‘Dunk City' sobriquet. The Eagles will force things that the last two opponents could not so this will be a serious test of State's progress. Ray says this is a matchup where being host team should help, hopefully.
"It's always good to play in the home environment. The hard part for us with a short rotation is playing so many games in a short period of time."
But this is exactly how State scheduled the pre-SEC season. And after walking off the court tonight the Bulldogs can start packing for a long trip west and the Las Vegas Classic. The four-team tournament pits Mississippi State against South Florida with a 7:00ct Sunday game. Monday's opponent is either Nevada-Las Vegas or Santa Clara with time to be determined.
And only then will these Bulldogs get a true break, as the next action isn't scheduled until January 2.