"In our heads we got pretty much demolished, there was nothing we could do," he said of the 75-43 loss last winter. "It's going to be a big challenge for us to go in and prove ourselves."
In Mississippi State's case the schedule maker lined-up a stretch of what seems to be direct peers. The Bulldogs have just come off a matchup with, and win over, Ole Miss before facing Alabama; and they have ahead home games with Texas A&M, Auburn, and then at Oxford before facing one of the few true quality teams in this conference. This is a stretch for State to indeed prove something.
Though to their second-year coach the Dogs did affirm a few new strengths in the first two SEC tests. "I thought it was a good opening week for us," Ray said. "I thought we played really well to start off at Kentucky the first half. We just didn't have enough bodies to sustain success. But I was proud of how our guys dealt with adversity here against Ole Miss."
The adversity being a Rebel run in the second half for the lead. Ray isn't sure how his first State squad would have handled the pressure. Now he knows more about his second as they shrugged off the threat to make plays on both ends of the floor that earned 76-72 victory.
"I thought it showed some growth and maturity with our guys," Ray said.
Interestingly, Ray has not gone through the win's tape with his team in any depth since Saturday. "We have such a quick turnaround," he explained. The idea is to save it in advance of the January 25 rematch. "We'll show them the next time we play Ole Miss, have fresh film. We've moved on to Alabama."
If Wednesday has high stakes for State, it is absolutely critical for the Crimson Tide. The record is a bit deceiving as Alabama played a heavyweight pre-SEC schedule, and was competitive in losses to Duke, UCLA, and Oklahoma. They opened league season by beating Vanderbilt before losing at Georgia.
State has lost the last three meetings, and seven of the last nine. The most recent win in Tuscaloosa was back in 2008, a season Bulldogs not only swept the regular series but took that now-famous ‘overtime tornado game' at the SEC Tournament. It was a different case last winter as Alabama not only routed State in Coleman Coliseum but took a 64-56 win at Starkville.
There are familiar names on this Tide roster from those meetings, most obviously guard Trevor Releford. He's leading the squad scoring at 18.2 points and has accounted for 33 of the team's 84 treys. Some opponents have just defended point guard-on-point guard playing the Tide but Ray isn't sold on such an approach by State.
"I don't know for sure how we're going to match that up there. But whoever is going to guard him has to be prepared to play defense the whole time because he's always trying to score the basketball."
Releford gets support from veterans Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper, who combined for 31 points at Humphrey Coliseum last trip. And soph Retin Obasohan is surpassing them now with a 12.4 scoring average, second on the squad. Randolph and Cooper are big guards and that helps a team that is relying on 6-10 freshman Jimmie Taylor in the post.
Mostly this is a backcourt-run club, Ray said. "They press, and it looks like they've been playing a lot of zone, too. So those are the two biggest things we have to prepare for."
The Bulldogs have seen a lot of zone lately. It's an easy scouting choice of course against an offense that simply struggles to score from outside. And, likely will continue to. There have been flashes out three-point success, such as 6-of-15 against Maryland-Eastern Shore. But against serious competition State misses more often. They are 7-of-32 in two SEC games. In fact Ray wasn't happy his team put up 21 trey-tries against Ole Miss, making four.
But the coach knows it is facing a series of zones that entices his team into taking such shots. That, and how center Gavin Ware is swarmed every second. Ware has only taken 14 SEC shots and scored 10 total points. He has yet to attempt a SEC free throw this sophomore season, too.
"The biggest problem is everyone is packing it in," Ray said. "I don't see that's going to change unless we play an aggressive game. We have to find a way to get Gavin some looks, and the only way I see that happening is if we make some shots."
Or, as the coach indicated, if others take their shots closer by attacking. This was what he liked best Saturday in the second half. Dogs shook-off their outside misses and drove to the lane, the rim, and took shots. Some were made, many more resulted in fouls and enough made free shots to survive. That, Ray believes, is key to winning against other SEC squads of comparable rosters. "Put our heads down and drive the ball and make things happen."
Guard Craig Sword suits this scheme perfectly, as his 15 made free throws—for all his points in fact—showed Saturday. How forwards Borchert and Rocquez Johnson attack is equally key, maybe even more so Wednesday against an developing Alabama frontcourt. Johnson is back to being the ‘energy' guy Ray wants on the baseline with 54% shooting these two SEC tests and 16.0 points.
"He's scoring because he's so active," Ray said. Borchert (11.0 in SEC play) can attack some too but is better dropping back for open outside looks. Not just for shots but teammates, when defenders follow Borchert away from the lane and might leave Ware or Johnson isolated inside. Increasingly the wild-card on offense are aggressive driving shots from point guard IJ Ready, who is good on the pull-up jumper; and redshirt frosh Jacoby Davis as one of the few three-point threats.
With a Wednesday win Mississippi State would match its entire SEC road success of last season. That victory was on January 12, at Georgia. In fact Bulldogs have not won a true road game, on the opponent's home court, since then.
Saturday's home game with the Aggies is 12:30pm, not the previously-listed 11:30am.