Road Trip Rematches State With Aggies

The first four chances didn't work out well. But there are five more opportunities to score that so-far elusive SEC road win, as Mississippi State marks half-way point of their conference schedule.

With another road trip, and coincidentally against an opponent the Bulldogs have beaten. Mississippi State (13-8, 3-5 SEC) travels to Texas A&M this Wednesday, with a 8:00 tipoff for the late CSS broadcast slot. The Bulldogs are seeing the Aggies for a second time in 18 days, with the first matchup going State's way by a 81-72 overtime score.

But that was in Humphrey Coliseum. This is far from the home court where Coach Rick Ray's team has scored all three of their conference wins. So now, "My biggest concern is what we're doing to be competitive on the road. When we can take that next jump and win on the road."

It didn't happen last Saturday, though the Bulldogs did have their best chance to-date. They pushed host Vanderbilt into the final minutes, trailing by four with a shot. It missed and the Commodores escaped with a 55-49 decision. The margin was State's closest in SEC road losses after an average deficit of 20 points in the previous three.

Margin doesn't matter in the record, and if anything getting closer only made the situation a little more frustrating for a Mississippi State team that wants that breakthrough badly. As guard I.J. Ready said, "We can't sit on the loss. So I think we're going to focus on going to A&M and winning. I think we can finally get past us not winning on the road."

It is a home loss to Florida, which means the Bulldogs are now two games under break-even in the SEC schedule and on a three-loss streak overall. True, State acquitted itself reasonably well against the nation's #3-ranked team and the league's leader. That only raised hopes for the Vanderbilt trip which were painfully deflated.

"To me I think it's like when you take a couple of steps forward, then take two steps back," center Gavin Ware said. "That's what it is, really."

"We're coming off a very tough loss," Ray said. "I thought we did some good things on the defensive end. We hurt ourselves, they got 24 points off turnovers." Hurt doubly because turnovers were missed chances to score that the host Commodores converted into just enough of their own points. This was just the latest issue arising for a State squad that in previous games hadn't been too careless with the ball, and came against a Vanderbilt team that didn't press or trap but stayed in a zone mostly.

This epitomized Ware's comment. Every time the team starts getting the act together in one area, something else happens. It's just that much more disappointing at this stage, Ray said. "I think now our expectations are a little higher, we expect to win some of those games. When you lose those games how do you address the issues?"

A good game Wednesday would do it nicely. And the Aggies (12-9, 3-5) are vulnerable. Their loss at Starkville began a five-game slide of defeats by double-digit margins, including their 69-36 weekend setback at Florida. A&M is averaging a league-low 58 points in SEC play and are 12th in shooting. And while they are still a sound defensive team, the Aggies are being beaten on the backboards even when the other guys miss.

Forward Jamal Jones is the lone double-digits scorer on the squad, at 11.4 points, and over half his makes begin beyond the arc. He scorched State for 24 points in the first meeting, while Davonte Fitzgerald came off the bench for 20 points on a season 7.3-average.

That overtime win was easily the best all-around performance for the Bulldogs this season so far as they shot 52%, got to more rebounds, and limited three-point attempts. In fact that was the game Ray's orders to work down the shot clock looking for an efficient shot were followed. Since then his team has kept a controlled rhythm a little better, if not always. But the long attempts have fluctuated based on the defenses faced.

Specifically, a series of zone looks the Bulldogs now expect. "I've never seen so much zone in my life," Ray said. "We have to find a way to get people out of a zone by knocking down some shots. But we can't settle, we need to continue to probe and attack the zone."

That's the paradox for this offense. The simple fix of firing over the zone doesn't work, or work well enough, because the Bulldogs aren't good outside shooters. To put it mildly; they now are 11th in SEC-game arc accuracy and the 40 treys top only Georgia's 39. Barring an outbreak of deadeye Dogs—ironically struggling shooter guard Fred Thomas knocked down three of four tries at Vanderbilt—Ray has to scheme other sorts of shots.

Or, given his preference, let Dogs create closer looks by forcing action. At each end, he stressed. "If you can get stops and get in attack mode in transition that's the first key to success against the zone." Because State has athletes who can get downcourt in a hurry, as long as other teammates come down with a forced miss and kick it out to Ready and guard Craig Sword and company.

The other way, and more usual, is attacking the zone on the floor. This has been Sword's calling card and he beat A&M with seven driving goals and eight free throws when his aggression forced fouls. In the four games since though defenses have wised-up and narrowed-down the driving lanes. Sword has 26 points and the forcing now is with his shooting as space isn't there. Nor is he getting back to the charity stripe.

There's nothing Sword alone can do to open the floor. He needs help outside and inside. Whether Thomas can stay accurate is wait-and-see; it is encouraging that freshman guard Jacoby Davis looks like the shooting eye is sharpening a little. And Ready can hit the open trey as well as go into the lane when defenders vacate it to swarm Sword and Ware.

For his part Ware works awfully hard for the few shots he gets; just 18 total attempts the last four games with 11 made. He is the focus of all the zones, obviously, and knows better than any Dog how much it helps pushing the pace with transition. Even if the layup isn't there, a quick entry pass might be there before the defense is entirely set.

"If we kick it out and Trivante (Bloodman) and IJ push it, it's easier for us to get two points on the board. We watch film, we get anything we want when we push it up the court."

And if not a made goal, maybe some unguarded shots for one. "The other thing we have to figure out is getting back to the free throw line," Ray said.

In the larger picture the Bulldogs just need to figure some way, any way, to steal a non-home win. To be fair, State is far from the only club in conference or country that finds the road rough. Much of the SEC is in the same shape or has one win at the most. That though magnifies just how much picking off a road victory can mean. And after the loss at Vanderbilt, the informal fact is any Bulldog hopes of a NIT opportunity in March seem to hinge on tomorrow's trip.

Certainly the return home doesn't set up easily as State hosts an improving Kentucky club Saturday (12:30). These teams opened SEC season against each other in Lexington; they begin the second half of the league schedule together again and at the Hump. At least the scouting material this week has been fresh with a pair of rematches.

"We have a challenge scheduling ahead of us but we're in a situation we've got some familiarity with the opponents, because it's the second time playing them," Ray said.

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