A rivalry game might not be such a bad deal for Mississippi State (10-4, 0-1) if it helps refocus from Wednesday's loss. Though, the Bulldogs were certainly sharp in the first half of their first SEC test. They led the top-twenty Wildcats 40-37 at intermission after easily their best overall half of play this season; or even all of Ray's year-and-half tenure so far.
"I felt we did a really good job of executing the gameplan and competing as a team," said Ray in post-game radio. "The shame is no one will know how well we played in the first half because we didn't give ourselves a chance in the second half. We started to go our own way." And what could have been a program-changing win turned into a 85-63 final.
At least Ray has a little more than 20 good minutes of road-game tape to show his squad and hopefully build upon. The Bulldogs shot and rebounded well for the first half, aided by Kentucky's odd approach of relying on outside shooting. Once the bigger and more talented Wildcats went to work inside, as well as turning State misses into fastbreak points, it was game-over.
There were some encouraging signs for State. Guard Craig Sword scored 19 points, almost half coming at the foul line as he was 9-of-10 there. The contact reflected defensive pressure on the leading offensive Dog as he was 5-of-12 shooting. Bench contributions from guard Trivante Bloodman (13) and forward Rocquez Johnson (12) were positives from the first road trip. As to Bloodman's surprising showing, "He did a great job," Ray said. "You're never going to have to worry about him competing, he does what he can to help the team win."
Even a four-point output from center Gavin Ware was acceptable in perspective of defensive attention from the huge UK front line, and Ware worked hard for ten rebounds.
"I thought he did some things as far as getting the ball inside," said Ray. "He did a really good job rebounding the ball." But forward Colin Borchert was pushed away from the rim, going 2-of-5 at the arc and missing two closer shots as well. And guard Fred Thomas made just one shot, a trey, in eight attempts.
Ray saw some "old story" as he called it return. When his team was making stops in the first half the offense followed. But "When we don't have success on the offensive end, it carries over." As expected Kentucky did go right at Ware, Borchert, and Johnson since they are the only front-court players on this roster, and drew 12 fouls among the trio.
There won't be any more big bodies this season but Ray says this can be a workable situation. Though, "We've got to do a better job executing our gameplan if we want to stay out of foul trouble." He means in avoiding hasty whistles at each end.
Even allowing for Kentucky's strengths, Wednesday reminded where State continues to struggle as Ray saw missed chances to finish around the rim. And outside shooting is a serious issue, especially with Thomas so erratic at the arc. Here guard Jacoby Davis will be asked to provide more, and Ray doesn't want guard I.J. Ready to forget he has freedom to fire it as well.
"He's got to do a better job looking for his own offense. He's so unselfish." But given his druthers the coach would rather make baskets going at the goal directly rather than throwing up too many longballs. This hinges on defense first. "If we get stops, we want to push the ball."
State went into SEC season even more short-handed than expected, after the surprising departure of swingman Andre Applewhite. State might eventually have a little extra help here if football receiver and prep star forward De'Runnya Wilson is turned loose to play some hoops. Regardless, this would seem to give the remaining Dogs—eight of them scholarship signees with a couple of contributing walk-ons now—greater playing time. It should, yes, but Ray still wants it earned.
"Everybody says they want to play 30, 35 minutes. Right now we don't have enough guys that warrant those minutes." Plus, State has a first-foul policy for Ware that puts him on the bench immediately after his initial personal with Johnson taking over.
The Rebels (10-4, 1-0) have their own challenges, and not only being stuck with the week-one quick turnaround after playing the Thursday game. They come to campus minus leading scorer and sharpshooter Marshall Henderson, serving a suspension scheduled well before the season began. Even without him Ole Miss was able to take care of Auburn in a home game.
Now they have to play one road game without the team's tone-setter. Though as Ray noted, others are filling that void well. Guard Jarvis Summers (17.5ppg, 53% three-pointers) has emerged as a quality SEC player and scorer in his own right. In fact, "I think he's the most improved player in the SEC," said Ray. "They're making Jarvis a focal point, they do some things with ball screens and cutting off guys. But they do such a good job driving the ball you're scared of leaving guys on an island to go guard Summers."
Ole Miss is also getting good inside work by Demarco Cox, Aaron Jones, and Sebastian Saiz, all averaging over six rebounds with 72 blocks between them. Ray has noticed use of more types of zone defenses this season, which is an obvious concern to a MSU club that can't count on three-point shooting. But the coach believes his team has improved in approaching zone sets since, for one example, the frustrating loss to TCU.
"I think we're more aggressive. You have to be willing to put your nose in there to go make a play."
Mississippi State has won the last four home games in this series, and 13 of the last 14. Ray's biggest win of his first season was against the Rebels, on March 2 at Humphrey Coliseum. That victory snapped a 13-loss streak and gave the Dogs enough spark to beat Auburn as well as take a SEC Tournament triumph over South Carolina. This year's schedule doesn't offer the end-of-season sense of urgency to the game though; not only does the first meeting come so early but the return-game in Oxford is January 25.
"It's a shame to play our rivals when the students are not here," Ray said. Though, with classes resuming Monday, students have been returning to town all week. Ray is hoping to see, and hear, the sort of crowd that came to last year's rivalry meeting and likely lent a little extra incentive to the home team.
More directly, he said today the need is to take the good from Wednesday's first half and apply it over a whole game. Because there were positives from competing against a top-25 team on the road with an eight-man roster. "You also let your guys feel good about some of the things they did well."