Besides the basketball, Saturday offers Bulldog fans a chance to celebrate their football team's successes. Coach Dan Mullen and team will be at the Hump, along with the Golden Egg and their Liberty Bowl trophy.
It's only mid-January but already this sets up as a critical contest. The Bulldogs are 11-5 and 1-2 SEC after a loss at Alabama. It's been years, seven of them in fact, since a Mississippi State team was under .500 after three SEC games. This record isn't really surprising given that both setbacks, to Kentucky and the Crimson Tide, were on the road.
The manner MSU lost Wednesday? That was surprising to Ray. Or worse. "I'm really disappointed in the way we played," he said. Coming off a tense home win over Ole Miss, the coach hoped his second team might build on a rivalry victory and play with poise against another comparable opponent.
It turned into an 80-61 final which wasn't really that competitive in the second half. Instead of positive consistency Ray saw frustration. "We haven't had a lot of success, and when we've had it we haven't dealt with it very well."
Now the Bulldogs must deal with a Texas A&M squad which is so far a SEC surprise success story. The Aggies are 12-4 and at 3-0 unbeaten in league play, matching Florida atop the standings. And where most conference contenders do it with offensive flair, A&M would rather grind out wins and down opponents. They are 14th in all-season SEC scoring but second in defense.
Only two Aggies even average double-figures, and Jamal Jones' 11.6 points-per won't win many honors. What the 6-8 big guard does is pick his outside shots and make 38% at the arc after a series of screens and rubs to get free. Forward Kourtney Roberson is the inside complement, a 60% shooter who hasn't taken anything outside the arc and averages 10.0 points.
Guard Alex Caruso runs the shot with a league-leading 5.3 assists. He represents how in-control this system is as A&M has a very positive assists-to-turnovers rate. And the Aggie team sets the league pace in defense with just 38.4% of shots against them going down. Coach Billy Kennedy can keep the defensive pressure on too as his eight-regular rotation play between 15 and 28 minutes, no more or less.
There are some familiar faces on the visiting bench for A&M's return-trip to the Hump. And the Aggies won their first, 55-49 in overtime. The three leading scorers are all gone but Roberson started while Caruso and James came off the bench.
At their current rate, third-year coach Kennedy's club can think about a return to post-season play after a two-year lapse. State isn't in such a situation. Ray's second team has already exceeded the ten wins of his first, but until knocking off the Rebels there were no attention-getting Ws. The Bulldogs can score some needed respect by beating a league leader tomorrow.
Maybe what Ray wants as much is more of the team-focused play of a week ago at the Hump. State played sound defense against an aggressive Ole Miss offense, and on the whole stayed within themselves offensively. As in, going right at zone defenses and creating shorter shot situations or fouls or both.
"We're not a jump-shooting team," Ray said. "We have to make sure we attack the basket first." Then if the outside opening presents think about taking it. Though, this is not likely to come often tomorrow. The Aggies are SEC-best in defending the arc, which dovetails with a State squad just 10-of-42 there in three league games.
The attack-mode mindset certainly does suit guard Craig Sword. He's set the team tone with 19, 15, and 12 points in the three SEC outings and for the full season is 12th in scoring. His shooting rate has taken a hit as defense focus, make that obsess on Sword and he's just 9-of-27 in league action. But drawing fouls is efficient enough with 28 made free throws in the same span.
And Sword's aggressiveness shows on both ends as he checks in at 5th in SEC steals this week. His team is netting 9.2 for games. This is sure to be a challenge against an Aggie offense that doesn't lose the handle often or easily.
One of the few positives Wednesday was the assertive presence of center Gavin Ware. Limited to ten total points in his first two league games the sophomore was 7-of-8 against Alabama with four freebies for 18 points. So, "Common sense says let's get him more touches," said Ray, noting the center only had four shots each half at Tuscaloosa.
Part of that problem arose from a good play with a bad outcome from IJ Ready. The freshman point guard took a charge, and got a turnover, but it was a seven-footer who bounced Ready's head off the hardwood. Headaches sat the quarterback the rest of the evening and it showed on the whole offense.
Ray hopes Ready is, well, ready in time Saturday. "He's a calming influence on our team, and a guy who can make a shot." Which gets back to the still-struggling shooting by this team, something defenses don't respect while packing around Ware inside and coming over to catch Sword on attacks. Guard Fred Thomas did throw in a couple of treys at Alabama, a hopeful sign; and Ray is giving backup guard Jacoby Davis a few more minutes to take his outside shots. Otherwise it is up to forward Colin Borchert to bust zones and he was 0-of-3 Wednesday after hitting 3-of-6 against Ole Miss.
Saturday itself is important to Bulldogs hopes, but January as a whole looks like make-or-break for the season. Auburn will be in the Hump next Wednesday before facing Ole Miss again but in Oxford. And road winning has been largely beyond Bulldog grasp since early last January at Georgia. So defending the home floor is an absolute priority for Ray. Especially as here his team has a chance to try for that elusive consecutive success.
"We'll find a way to get these guys locked-in to what we want to do," he said. "But if we do some things as a team, we have a chance against good teams."