Maximizing the friendly confines again is much on Coach Rick Ray's mind. Mississippi State already has notched a couple of Hump-home wins and both were properly dramatic; a 76-72 scuffle with Ole Miss and 81-72 overtime outlast of Texas A&M. Given the unsettled state of the entire SEC this month, not to mention lack of good road trips ahead, extending this string is an absolute to Ray.
Or as the coach calls it, "Guard your yard." Though realistically Ray is more focused at the moment on another and less-good State trend in the early conference schedule. The Bulldogs are looking for consecutive SEC wins to put them at 3-2 before returning to the road. Up to now the ride has swung up and down with each game. So coming off Saturday's victory Ray will watch how his squad copes with "a tad bit of success."
"It's got to be from an attitude standpoint, more than anything we do Xs-and-Os or with our practices. Hopefully our guys are maturing, that's the biggest step."
Mississippi State has won the last three home games with Auburn, though there was no meeting in the Hump last season under the then-new SEC rotation. Ray's first Dog team went to Auburn to play the only game, and won it 74-71 in overtime to end the regular season.
Despite their own struggles these Tigers present a sizable step to clear, too. Auburn might be oh-fer the SEC but do have two of the league's hottest shots. Chris Denson is throwing in 19.5 points every time out on 49% accuracy. K.T. Harrell is right behind at 18.9 points on 47% shooting overall and 42% from the arc. These Tiger guards are first and third respectively in SEC scoring, so Ray knows where to begin defensive scheming.
"You're talking about two guys averaging 19 points a game. It's going to be a task for us to contain both guys. Especially with two on them on the perimeter it's going to be difficult." Made more-so because State's thin roster offers no realistic ‘scouts' to practice against. Redshirting forward Travis Daniels normally simulates the best opponent but this Dog's skill set doesn't really match shooter Harrell too well. Walk-on forward Tevin Moore is doing Denson's job on scout team.
Then again exact matchups aren't necessarily first on Ray's mind in this game-prep. He also notes that despite all the instruction last week Dogs didn't follow the script at Alabama anyway and allowed Trevor Releford to run wild on offense. What State's staff is emphasizing is not only that the guys charged with guarding the Tiger guards—Craig Sword and Fred Thomas to be specific—do their jobs as needed; but when the inevitable switch-offs come his forwards react rightly.
"Colin Borchert and Rocquez Johnson could be guarding them on switches," Ray said. Which will of course put them in danger of fouls without playing things smart. And, sticking to instructions.
"This is going to boil down to guys taking the challenge and doing a good job," said Ray. "We can't be helping every single possession." Auburn doesn't overpower many teams inside but there is size there. 7-0 senior Asauhn Dixon-Tatum picks his shot carefully to make 58% and works the paint well at 5.9 rebounds with 28 blocked shots.
While the Tigers do put up a lot of longballs they give up even more. Though, this is an area Ray would rather his own team not count on. State makes just 29% of trey-tries for the season; and in SEC play that rate falls to 25%. The Bulldogs are told to take the ball closer-in before shooting anything, which suits Sword's skills as a slasher just fine. The sophomore's scoring is actually better in league play, 17.3 to 15.0 points.
And while he isn't getting enough shots, whether from defensive stacking or lack of passes inside, center Gavin Ware is providing 12.5 points in SEC action on 61% shooting. Ray's orders are get the ball to the big Dog every chance possible, since even if he can't score it himself Ware is an improved passer able to find more-open teammates if they work for space. He was 8-of-11 against Texas A&M, which ran a scheme designed to shut him down but didn't.
For that matter Mississippi State beat the odds all afternoon, shooting 53% and scoring 81 points; both the mosts allowed by the Aggies this season. The Dogs did so despite the absence of point guard IJ Ready, sidelined by a concussion suffered at Alabama. The experience of older guard Trivante Bloodman saved the day. Even if he had just three assists and three points, Bloodman was key to Ray.
In fact, "A lot of time you don't notice him on the court and that's a good thing." Meaning that Bloodman is taking care of business on both ends and not turning the ball over or making foolish fouls. Ray is proud how Bloodman has returned to the starting job after losing it to a freshman, which is hard for a veteran athlete in any sport to accept. "He's handled all of that adversity really well."
Ray said today he doesn't anticipate Ready playing tomorrow even if cleared late by the medical staff, since the rookie has not practiced. His next chance to see any action is Saturday when the Bulldogs have a rematch with Ole Miss, this time in Oxford.
That they return to the road soon makes this rare consecutive home games stretch all the more important. The Dogs know what an over-.500 mark can mean, too, since it has been so, so long since early January 2013. Still Ray wants to minimize distractions from the immediate task of taking on Auburn. He doesn't even want to hear his team talk about modest home-crowds for the first two league games.
There are obvious outside reasons. The Ole Miss game came days before the new semester started, then the A&M game fell on a three-day weekend with students mostly vacating campus again. Over and above of course is the lack of big success for the last few State seasons which has taken the edge off basketball here. For his part Ray doesn't raise the attendance topic.
"Sometimes our guys have mentioned in the locker room being disappointed about the crowd. But I told them you guys are in total control of that. Win games and play well, people come. Don't say anything about the crowd, do your part."