Mississippi State (13-13) isn't winning. Wednesday's 92-81 decision at Louisiana State was the eighth-straight defeat since January 22, and leaves the Bulldogs 3-10 SEC. They are tied for last with South Carolina, which happens to be the final regular-season opponent and is setting up as a contest to escape the SEC's cellar.
In the meantime the Bulldogs are hosting Arkansas with a 3:00 Saturday tip. The schedule includes a second-annual basketball alumni weekend. Returning players and coaches will have a Friday evening social, 8:00 at Buffalo Wild Wings which also hosts Ray's weekly call-in show. Participants in this weekend will be recognized at halftime Saturday with a reception following the game in the Mize Pavilion. Over 100 such alums turned out for the first event and Ray welcomes such opportunities to connect or even re-connect former Bulldogs with their current program.
Arkansas arrives carrying their own pressures now at 17-9 and 6-7. The Razorbacks have rebounded from a rough SEC start to win four of their last five, including a rare road win at Vanderbilt. Still they are in the league's lower-half with five games left, and NCAA hopes hang by a fragile thread.
It's not for lack of offense; Arkansas is the full-season league scoring leader at 80.8 points (third in SEC-only play). And their attack is indeed aggressive. Only Ole Miss has heaved more three-pointers than the Razorbacks, who fire up over twenty tries each game and make 36% of them. But the Hogs aren't a selfish bunch; they average more assists than any SEC squad.
The firepower allows a frenzied defensive style that gambles on steals and succeeds often enough that Arkansas doesn't mind getting beat other trips for points. They also block some balls and trigger fastbreaks in the other direction.
"It all starts with their pressure on the defensive end," Ray said. "They have an awful lot of presses they come at you with, you have to make good decisions under pressure." That fact obviously doesn't square well with Mississippi State's ball-handling difficulties. And when the Dogs do execute a play and take a shot it's best to have somebody getting back if it's another miss. "They do such a good job once they rebound, they have four guys that can bring the ball up the court." If State can stop the quick basket, then it's a matter of rubbing off all sorts of screening actions and not, as Ray warned, "forget about the ball."
Of course forgetting about the basketball in another team's hands is not even State's great issue this month. Taking care of the ball themselves is. Turnovers aren't the only reason for Bulldog offensive struggles but certainly contribute because a lost possession is a shot never attempted, made or missed. Only twice in SEC season has State been under double-digit turnovers, and the average has been 15 or more the last four weeks. Nor are all or even most of them forced by defense, the Bulldogs have shot their own paws too often.
To be fair Ray did see some small Wednesday improvement with just—just—16 turnovers at LSU. This was better than the 21 at Auburn. But in this case the giveaways came in bunches and that put State behind to stay. "Last night we started with five turnovers of our first eight possessions," he noted, as LSU leaped to a huge early lead. The Dogs did pull themselves together and matched the host Tigers point-for-point in the last half.
They even drew within seven points down stretch, only to have another February problem arise in foolish fouls. Which senior forward Colin Borchert compounded with a technical for his #5 personal. "That was a huge momentum swing for us," Ray said. "We never recovered from that four-point swing."
There were individual bright spots. After weeks of frustrations against zone defense focused on him, guard Gavin Ware broke loose for 32 points on 11-of-16 shooting. That was more points than in Sword's previous three games combined and the most of Ray's tenure for a Bulldog. Sword still had to scramble for shots and points; LSU's zone had some wider seams than others but tall Tigers could quickly fill from behind, sometimes.
"I thought more than anything Craig was able to attack gaps," Ray said. "I don't worry about his confidence in that regard. I worry about his confidence to stay the course." Because, the sophomore does risk wearing-down when opponents focus attention on meeting him inside the arc. How he handles a quicker Arkansas squad is State's serious offensive question, too.
Zones are also a pain for center Gavin Ware, and LSU was almost a worst-case club. Ware only got off seven shots (four made) in 33 minutes, and this time not because he was being fouled. Still after a five-game scoring slump the soph post has averaged 11.3 in the last four contests, on 60% shooting…when he has a chance to shoot that is.
His shooting isn't as sharp but forward Rocquez Johnson seems to have regained his own stride, with 25 points off the bench in these last two losses. Almost half have come on free throws, too, as Johnson gets back to the aggressive lane-play of the pre-conference schedule.
But the two forwards starting ahead of Johnson have almost vanished on offense. Borchert's technical reflected fouling-frustration as he lasted just six total minutes Wednesday and was scoreless. And in his last six games the senior is 9-of-35 overall and 3-of-17 at the arc. An even worse slump belongs to Fred Thomas, 8-of-30 the last six games and held to a single free throw in 16 minutes at LSU. The difference is Thomas does give good defensive effort which merits his place in the lineup.
Ray has been able to get unexpected scoring lately from guard Trivante Bloodman, 29 the last two games. That is in alternation with oft-injured freshman IJ Ready who has missed three starts with the latest setback. Ready looks ready to return to the lineup, though Ray is pleased how the rookie and veteran Bloodman have been able to share the point guard position amiably and at times productively.
"Both Trivante and IJ have handled that delicate balance of who starts and who comes off the bench. They know they're going to play major minutes regardless."
Obviously their Saturday minutes will be hard ones working against Arkansas, both the defensive pressure and staying with the fast-attack offense. This simply sets up as bad matchup for a team with turnover troubles already, and shooting issues all season. Still, a fast-paced game is also where the Bulldogs can score quickly in transition…if they make a stop first. Any chance will hinge on tough-minded defense to shrug off the inevitable Razorback baskets, and better focus than ever heading towards the offensive end.
"We have to make sure we can't set ourselves up for failure," said Ray, "especially by turning the ball over against a team like Arkansas."