Coach Rick Ray counts turnovers as one of two top issues contributing to the most recent setbacks, bad losses at home to Georgia and at Auburn. "Our inability to guard without fouling, also turning the ball over," he said. Combine those with a team which doesn't shoot well from outside the lane, and it adds up to a 13-12 overall record and a 3-9 SEC mark. This by a team that a month ago was 3-2 and optimistic.
Snapping the skid is tough enough, but doing so on the road tomorrow is a real challenge as Mississippi State visits LSU (15-9, 6-6). The Tigers themselves are feeling some pressures. A week ago they were solidly in the top-third of the conference standings and the NCAA Tournament projections. Losses to Texas A&M and Arkansas, both road games, have cost LSU whatever post-season margin they owned.
But they have been a good homecourt club, 12-1 overall and 5-1 SEC; and are hosting a State squad yet to scratch in a true road-game setting. They also feature strong points the Bulldogs struggle with: big bodies which can score. "They have a lot of size in (Jordan) Mickey and Johnny O'Bryant," Ray said. "And Jarell Martin, a McDonald's All-American."
Mississippi native O'Bryant is the centerpiece on this offense at 15.8 points, shooting 53% and getting to the free throw line regularly. Mickey has emerged this season as a big bookend too at 13.5 points, and the pair are good for almost eight rebounds apiece. Mickey also has blocked 84 balls, which is an obvious concern for State.
Add in Martin's 12.0 points, and "We have to do a good job keeping the ball out of the post because it comes a problem," Ray said. "And they have some guys who can shoot the ball with Stringer and Hickey." Guard Andre Stringer, who has been around so long it seems he played for Dale Brown, has 50 of the team's treys and Anthony Hickey another 46.
Interestingly, the same Tigers who lead the SEC in league-game only scoring are also last in defense, allowing 77 points on 44% shooting. Still their strengths are a bad matchup for Bulldogs, everywhere. "Just their size and length in general," Ray said. "And they're playing a lot of zone, which is surprising." Though as Ray added, zone defending has become a national trend this season as coaches seek some solution to NCAA rules tweaks meant to free up offenses.
At the same time, an opponent would be foolish or arrogant not to go zone against Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are dead-last in SEC-game outside shooting, 29.5% at the arc with the fewest made-treys in the conference. That's good for LSU probably as the Tigers are dead-last in defending three-pointers. Any other team would likely try to take advantage of that.
Not State, not unless the Bulldog backcourt has one of those rare nights where the longballs are falling. And the few times their aim has been on only encouraged more attempts which were missed. Last week's humiliating setback to Georgia was Exhibit A. After making three treys in a short stretch some Dogs kept trying, with a 3-of-25 night resulting.
Ray got that under control at Auburn with a 5-of-17 day, some of those misses forced late as the Dogs made a late rally in the 92-82 loss. It didn't matter though because other breakdowns meant defeat. First-half fouls, with four Dogs getting two personals in the period, put a lesser defensive squad on the court. That combined with a stretch of turnovers, many unforced, meant a 18-3 run by an Auburn squad not noted for offensive prowess.
Ray says, in hindsight, maybe gambling on leaving some starters on court despite the fouls would have been a better approach. But then, "If those guys fouled-out I'd have been kicking myself." So this was a literal no-win situation beyond coaching control. What should have been controlled by whoever was on court was the basketball. Instead, "They had 26 points off our 16 turnovers. We were able to fight ourselves back in the second half because we didn't have turnovers."
Point guard Ready is frank. "I know when you turn the ball over you don't get those possessions back. It's taking away shots we never know would have gone in or wouldn't." Cynics would suggest it wouldn't matter given the team's struggling shooting, but credit Ready for reading the numbers better. State actually by his count "Is almost 4% better than everybody we've been playing," Ready said.
In the last six games State has indeed shot 46.5% on anything tried inside the arc, accurate enough to compete and even win if not for throwing possessions away or forcing longer shots. What works is getting center Gavin Ware isolated inside for power points, and guard Craig Sword slashing for short shots or outright layups. Obviously zone defenses are designed to prevent both and increasingly does, which is why Ray's approach depends first on defense. Stops and rebounds set up transition where Sword can go to the rack first or Ware get the one-on-one matchup.
Or, get fouled. As Ray said, this isn't easy to force in straight halfcourt offense against the tight zones State is now facing. "When teams play us man to man we tend to get to the free throw line," the coach said. "We have to figure out a way to be as aggressive in our zone offense as we are in our man offense."
Ready can offer some outside help though as he comes back from the latest injury setback, and both he and guard Trivante Bloodman are capable playmakers in transition. What is really needed now are more consistent contributions from big guard Fred Thomas and forward Colin Borchert, both of whom have relied too much on long shots which are simply missing. Ray doesn't want to remove that option entirely from their arsenals, if only to keep coverage spread a little farther.
But, "They've got to find a way to be basketball players without the three point shot." Though if LSU proves as potent in the post as expected, long-range shooting might be the only answer. It epitomizes the problems State faces in just about any area of the game. There just aren't enough bodies to play defense all-out as Ray would like. And there aren't enough offensive skills to keep opponents honest in most games. It is a bad recipe by any measure, but it is what Mississippi State is stuck with for the second-straight season.
Which is why as the schedule grinds to the early March end, recruiting and the future are of increased interest and discussion. Ray has two redshirting players already in juco forward Travis Daniels and center Fallou Ndoye, and a signee in Oliver Black expected to contribute immediately. Of course given the state of State's roster that would apply to any newcomer. Everyone will be welcomed, but for now the Dogs have to play it out with what is available said sophomore Ware.
"We'll do scouting report and try to figure out the advantages and disadvantages. We'll try to figure out a way to get a victory on the road."