"We would spend the second practice those days shooting free throws," Ray said. Not just free throws; there was jump-shooting included since this too is something that needs improvement. But it was the isolated shot from the stripe that the coach ordered. Results are showing.
In their two Southeastern Conference contests the Bulldogs are 42-of-60 at the stripe, or 70% even. That might not seem so special, except that during their first eleven games Mississippi State met or exceeded that level just three times. Bluntly, free throws were frustrating for Bulldogs and their coach.
For that matter, "As a team our free throws have jumped eight percent in the past four games," Ray said. Because against UNLV and Maryland-Eastern Shore, the last two contests before SEC play, his team was 22-of-30.
The natural assumption would be that Ray is investing more time on free throwing during all practices. Not so, or at least not obsessively so. There is just so much else to be done in-season reviewing the last game and planning for the next. What he does, as have his peers forever, is set some standards. "If we shoot 15 during a five-minute break we have to make 12. Or if we shoot ten we have to make eight, it's 80%" Otherwise everyone runs the court.
"We've always done that. But you don't get enough of those breaks in practice." Thus, Ray's mid-semester approach of two-a-day practicing. Team tactics and individual teaching in the morning, shooting in the afternoon. Now Ray can only hope his players can carry-over the holidays lessons for the rest of a regular season.
Stripe-accuracy doesn't assure success; the Dogs were 14-of-18 in a 22-point loss at Kentucky. And against Ole Miss there were some struggles as 28-of-42 wasn't exceptional shooting. But the difference was, players who had not done well at the stripe for two months were more comfortable in a rivalry setting. And after too many first-half misses that would have given State lots of breathing room, down the stretch Dogs like Rocquez Johnson delivered.
None had a bigger impact though than guard Craig Sword. He scored all his points on free pitching, going 15-of-18. Sword couldn't have found a better game to have a breakthrough. "I think he's 24-of-28 in SEC play, Ray said. "He's made a tremendous jump."
Two games into SEC season the Bulldogs stand 5th in league-game free throwing, compared to 12th for the entire schedule.
State resumes play this Wednesday with a 7:00 contest at Alabama.