Count sophomore guard Craig Sword as one pup with a more veteran view of this return-trip to Lexington. "It's not easier but we have experience from last year. So we're going to come out and play hard."
Harder than these Bulldogs have all season so far. They were able to post a 10-3 record for the pre-conference schedule which has Ray upbeat after that half of the season. "I'm proud of the fact we got to the ten win standard, considering we had ten wins last year," the coach said, frankly. Still ten victories is just a starting point for any major-conference club.
And not all ten-win teams are on equal footing. The Wildcats are also 10-3 but they enter SEC season a top-twenty team, and rested by a nice break since their December 28 thumping of arch-rival Louisville. Their losses have been to ranked clubs Michigan State, Baylor, and North Carolina, too, so even defeat has been useful in developing a squad which will contend for another SEC title over the next ten weeks.
Certainly this is a different Kentucky club than the one which missed NCAA play last March but still thrashed State by 30 points in Rupp. The revolving-door roster now features a fresh group of stars led by Julius Randle (18.1 ppg, 10.6 rpg) and three more double-digit scorers. All freshmen, of course, and all eventually headed to professional ball. In Randle's case much sooner than later—"a lottery pick" as Ray calls the forward phenomenon.
And, as much of a mismatch problem as the Bulldog frontcourt can face all winter. "He's such a physical presence," Ray said of trying to stay between the 6-9 forward and the goal. Even if the alley is closed off, no simple task itself, "He doesn't settle for jump shots. If you play off him he's still going to attack the rim. The other thing is he draws fouls all the time."
Which is an obvious issue for a squad with just three baseline Bulldogs and only one of them a true center. And State's Gavin Ware is already occupied with 7-0 Willie Cauley-Stein, one of the rare regulars from last season still with a starting job. He provides a steady nine points and eight rebounds and shoots 63%.
This leaves just Colin Borchert and/or Rocquez Johnson to cope with Randle. They together or more often in combo settings with guard help have to react immediately to #30. "We've got to double-team every time he gets the ball," Borchert said. "If we don't he's going to get me and ‘Quez in foul trouble." Which is something both of State's forwards already face against even lightweight opponents, with three foul-outs between them when teams deliberately attack to draw whistles.
Kentucky can do that just by playing a normal gameplan of course, no intent involved. The backcourt is forward-sized too, which only increases their rebounding prowess as the Wildcats out-board everyone an average of 12.4-per night. The offensive glass is the greater concern to Ray.
"You can do some things to get a stop, but that doesn't end if you don't get the rebound." Not coincidentally, in State's there losses they were out-rebounded overall by an average of seven-plus.
The schedule-maker did these Dogs no favor by sending them to Kentucky for the SEC opener. Ironically, Ray's first State squad did win in its league debut at Georgia but was 0-8 the rest of the road schedule. This one is a whole ‘nother degree of difficulty, and most of the current roster recalls the 85-55 outcome a year ago in Lexington.
Regardless, "This year we all more mature and I feel we can go in and get the win if play together," soph guard Fred Thomas said. "I feel like we're ready for this game."
That's a bold statement to be sure for a squad without a win yet on anyone else's home court. State's ‘best' win so far look like a neutral-site success against South Florida. Still Ray sees no anxieties from the players in practices. Just the opposite. "So I don't anticipate that being a problem again," the coach said of returning to Rupp. "I think if anything our guys have too much confidence in their abilities at times."
Some of it is justified. Sword's second-season has seen the big guard blossoming into a more complete player. Despite a three-point performance against Maryland-Eastern Shore he holds the team scoring lead at 14.3 ppg. And it isn't from throwing up all sorts of attempts now.
In fact, "He hasn't shot very much," said Ray. "That's helped his percentage more than anything, he's figured how to attack the rim. And he's making better decisions when and when not to shoot. He feels good when he comes off a ball screen and has space he can make that pull-up shot."
That three-point outing last week wasn't a ‘slump' either, as Sword only took three shots in a win. It was a good sign, he says. "I have a lot of opportunity now because I have more people around me who can score."
Such as center Ware, who dominated UMES with 21 points and 16 rebounds. It was similar to the soph's November stretch of double-doubles. But even in lower-scoring games before last week Ware was shooting well, and he is 22-of-33 in the last four contests.
Borchert is stepping to the fore as well, with a career-best 22 points last week. And, five assists as he and Ware dominated UMES. "It shows how well-rounded this team can be at times," Borchert said. "Me and Gavin can do a lot of inside, we've got guys that come off the bench and make buckets. But we do need Chicken (Sword) to score! We need him to go out and shoot the ball a little more."
Shooting and thus scoring remains the great unknowns for State at mid-season. The 46.1% accuracy to-date is encouraging, albeit in the context of competition without much of a RPI impact. But 30% three-pointing is still worrisome, and in SEC season three-pointing becomes more and more important. Freshman guard I.J. Ready (10-of-20 at the arc) offers help here as he is again healthy, and Borchert's best offensive role can be going outside for shots. State even got a couple of treys against UMES from guard Fred Thomas, though he has defined ‘streak shooter' this season going hot or cold and nothing in between.
So Ray is looking for more aid at the arc. "Jacoby Davis has to get out there and see what he does," he said of the redshirt frosh guard. Senior swingman Tyson Cunningham can throw up a three as well, but now his priority is giving depth at forward. Because what little State had left when soph Andre Applewhite abruptly bailed on the team. He'd been put in the starting lineup which made complaints of playing time disingenuous at best.
Regardless, Ray has to replace yet-another departure from an already-thin roster. Thomas will have to play more at the three-spot, with Cunningham one reserve and walk-on Tevin Moore another option. "The thing that's still hard to us is back to having eight scholarship players," said Ray, who ground through his first season with another short roster. He said Monday he doesn't foresee quick help from a few walk-ons already dressing.
Nor did he have an update on potential availability of football receiver De'Runnya Wilson, the prep hoops star just off a fine freshman season with the bowl-winning Bulldogs. "I haven't talked to Coach (Dan) Mullen or talked to Bear," said Ray, "it's wait-and-see on that." With the school semester starting next Monday the wait to see won't be long now, and Wilson needed a post-football break anyway.
For this week, "Who we have right now is who is going to be part of our team," said Ray. "That's a little difficult, but if you have the right eight players you still have a chance."
State's first chance to show what these players can do on the home court in SEC season comes Saturday as they host Ole Miss in a 3:00 contest.