Very hard. Florida (17-2, 6-0 SEC) comes to town not only the last conference club with an unscathed record. They are a consensus top-five team with a highest ranking of #3 by A.P., and playing for both another SEC crown but a number-one seeding in a NCAA regional bracket. Given the still-dubious state of this league that will require both help and luck, yet the opportunity is there one-third of the way through the conference schedule.
Mississippi State's situation is nearer the other end of any such scale. The encouraging words for Ray's program has been progress in year-two that shows in a 13-6, 3-3 mark for late January. This team has already exceeded the first's win total of ten, and is a SEC success away from matching the four of last year.
"It is a lot more positives," sophomore guard Craig Sword said. "Last year, there weren't that many positives!"
Hosting a top-five team Thursday (6:00 tipoff) isn't much of a positive of course. Even with their ranking, which has steadily improved during a double-digit wins streak, the Gators are something of a low-key club. Certainly they don't blow anyone away with offensive numbers, where Coach Billy Donovan's bunch is more efficient than flashy.
As well as balanced, with five double-digits scorers. Casey Prather leads that list at 16.8 points, 9th-best in the SEC, based on 62% shooting with all of it coming at close range. Big body Patric Young (10.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg) sets in the inside presence in rotation with Dorian Finney-Smith (10.4, 7.7). The outside punch primarily comes from Michel Frazier at 12.3 points and his 52 made-treys. What impresses, and concerns, Ray more though is what happens on the other end of the floor.
"They're a phenomenal defensive team," he said. Field goal defending, rebounding the misses, forcing turnovers or coming up with steals, the Gators make life miserable for offenses. "The biggest thing is they make mistakes on defense, and their rotations to cover up are phenomenal," Ray said. "They make multiple rotations and keep you out of the paint."
And if someone does dare the lane, his shot might not be blocked outright—Florida has the fewest swats in the SEC—but the attempt isn't going to be high-percentage. Ray noted that he's seeing some different zone-looks on recent tape too, a sign of a still-improving team.
"They're such a veteran ball club and just play really well." And does so with a number of guys who in other programs would be likely to go their own way(s). Donovan has individuals buying into a team system. "That's one of the most difficult things to do in college basketball."
Of course it's a situation Ray would love to try his hand at as well. For now though he must navigate another SEC season with a short roster with its share of veterans, just not of the quantity and honestly quality of a Florida. Thus the emphasis on taking steps and testing the progress. Today it is dealing with a tough rivalry loss that left the Bulldog frustrated. Which itself is also progress since last season it was almost accepted.
Not now. "It was disappointing to us," Ware said. "We came in with a lot of confidence, and let our coaches down. But this is something we have to learn from."
Ware exemplifies in some ways this squad's swerves. He shot well at Ole Miss, when he was on the floor; he just wasn't there a lot with only 18 minutes. For that matter he played just ten minutes in the home win over Auburn. Whistles are the obvious reason…though it needs noting that Ray's second-half frustrations had him pulling the whole starting lineup off the court at Oxford.
Either way when Ware is on he is the piece State can literally run the offense around. In his last four games the soph center has shot 20-of-26, almost 77%; and drawn a fair share of defenders' fouls too. He simply has to struggle in a fine balance of aggression on either end, without pushing his luck with personal fouls.
"I still try to come in and do my part and contribute to my team. Even though I've been getting in foul trouble lately, anything I can do to help my team win I'm for it." State surely needs him to take more than the seven total shots of the last two games, and be on court for more minutes period against these Gators.
"Just try to be more of a defensive threat, as far as move my feet to guard in the perimeter and in ball-screen action. And keep my hands off people, things that help me be a better defensive player."
Sword's recent issues have been tougher. Since a big game against Texas A&M he's shot 3-of-13 and missed all three trey-tries. For the first time all season Sword had consecutive games of single-digit scoring. It isn't so much a slump though, as proof how opponents obsess on defending this Dog. Sword is seeing fewer creases for attacking the goal, his strongest point. Even mid-range jump shots are being defended closely.
"It's been very frustrating. I've got to work on my shot more, because people are playing us in zone," Sword said. "And I've got to work on my driving. Whatever zone they're in, we have to start hitting shots."
He means outside shots, which is not at all a Bulldog forte this season. Though, ironically, they were 16-of-38 on treys the last two times out and that is far better than the season average. Guard Fred Thomas hit three of them at Oxford, his best game of the '14 calendar. Forward Colin Borchert is 5-of-11 the last two games. Not coincidentally at all, offense inside and outside improves with IJ Ready's return from his latest injury issue; a January 15 concussion this time. He got back on the court last Saturday and was 3-of-5 at the arc with a couple of assists.
"He's a guy that can make shots and generate offense for us," Ray said. "He's trying to find his way, he's had two injuries that knocked him off the track a little bit. But he's going to be fine." The time Trivante Bloodman had at the point in Ready's absence is a benefit as well.
It's in the frontcourt where State will still be both short and short-handed. Though, as football receiver De'Runnya Wilson (see Monday story) gets up to speed he can give a few precious minutes of rest to Ware, Borchert, and forward Rocquez Johnson. Ray can only envy a deep Florida roster that allows regular rotations, without much drop-off in production either.
This game offers opportunity for a program milestone. Since Humphrey Coliseum opened in 1975-76 home teams have won 399 games. Getting #400 would make some history while giving this team a better feel for their future.