Which signals that effort hasn't been lacking as Mississippi State (13-14, 3-11 SEC) plays out the season. This despite the lack of success Ray acknowledges, and a nine-loss streak confirms. The last Bulldog victory came on January 18. Since then there have been a few close calls and a well-contested matchup with Arkansas showed the squad isn't mailing anything in yet.
"I know we have a losing streak but we're just going to keep on working hard," forward Colin Borchert said.
But winning? That has stayed outside State's reach for five weeks. And the next chance isn't exactly promising either as the Bulldogs host Tennessee in a 7:00 Wednesday tipoff. So optimism is in short supply around Humphrey Coliseum these days. It doesn't keep the Bulldogs from scouting, preparing, and playing just the same.
Which doesn't surprise Ray, nor should it. "Maybe I'm too simplistic and too black-and-white on stuff. But you don't give yourselves a chance if you don't play hard and compete. So the things you worry with are your guys giving an effort. Beside the Georgia game, I thought we've been pretty competitive."
Competitive hasn't translated into successful though. The Bulldogs are tied with South Carolina for last place, though should things stay even there will be a cellar-showdown on the last Saturday of the regular season. Between now and then Ray would much rather pick off a win of some sort and stop this skid. Tennessee just isn't an ideal streak-snapper for State.
After a loss at Texas A&M, in overtime, Tennessee is 16-11 and clinging to NCAA Tournament ambitions, as well as stuck in a seven-team logjam of 7-7 SEC squads. This packed pack does at least offer the Volunteers obvious opportunity with four games left; they play two of these tied teams in the last three dates along with Auburn. They have the schedule and incentive for a fast finish to stay in the post-season picture.
They also have the firepower. Big guard Jordan McRae is the league's #4 scorer at 19.3 points, on a mix of outside and inside scoring. He's knocked down 64 treys yet will go into traffic; one-quarter of his points have come at the foul line. 260-pound bruiser Jarnell Stokes dominates paint with 14.4 points and a SEC-best10.4 rebounds, while Jeronne Maymon is the equally-big bookend providing 10.5 points and 8.1 boards.
"They pose a variety of problems but the biggest thing we have to get ready for is the physicality," Ray said. "They've got two very good post players and you have to make sure you match their physicality in some way, shape, or form." At the same time McRae obviously is an outside threat, along with veteran Josh Richardson and Memphis transfer Antonio Barton who have combined for 59 three-pointers.
In SEC-only play the teams are actually comparable in both scoring and shooting, and even three-point shooting—something State has struggled with most chances—is close enough. The Vols also turn the ball over more often, something hard to believe. The worrisome differences are on defense and rebounding where Tennessee is stronger. Much stronger. And much deeper too.
Which isn't an ideal situation for a Mississippi State roster with two true frontcourt players, total, and a swingman who is more effective on the outside. Any direct coverage by center Gavin Ware and forward Rocquez Johnson is a formula for fast fouling…but allowing any safety space just makes it all the easier for Stokes and others to get the easy points.
"We have to find a way to defend them without fouling, and not turn the ball over," Ray said.
Ironically, against Arkansas's end to end styles, the Bulldogs had just 16 turnovers. ‘Just' being a measure of how hard handling a basketball has been for this team. Though the last game became even more difficult when both point guards were sidelined. I.J. Ready took a finger to an eye, fortunately without any scratching so he is fine for Wednesday. Trivante Bloodman was sidelined by cramps, which had been caused by a strained calf muscle. "We anticipate him being ready to go Wednesday," Ray said.
It's also understood that the offense this team must use, transition after defensive stops and aggressive motion, lends itself to turnovers already. Leading scorer guard Craig Sword was minimized by Arkansas, scoring ten points after a 32-point output against LSU's big but not really active zone defense. Yet the Razorbacks, no big bunch themselves, shut down Ware who took just three shots and lasted only 23 minutes with—right—more foul problems. Though Ray stresses giving his sole center first touches and more shots, Ware himself has not been nearly aggressive in February as before.
Even for a skidding squad there have been fresh developments. One was Borchert stepping to the fore last game, with a season-best 21 points and 5-of-5 accuracy at the arc. In the previous six whole games the senior had scored all of 22 points with three longballs. Asking for a repeat performance is iffy of course, and most of the points came after a curious ‘flagrant' foul call that apparently inspired Borchert.
Regardless, "The biggest thing I feed off is making shots. When I'm making shots I feel I'm productive out there."
The second late-season twist was the vanishing, if not banishing of big guard Fred Thomas. The 20-game starter not only didn't open the last game, he didn't play at all. Ray would not give any reasons for benching a veteran, though scoring 20 total points in four games on 6-of-23 shooting would seem evidence enough. At the same time Thomas' positives this season have been on defense where he is aggressive and at times productive, and Arkansas seemed his sort of opponent.
Ray said Thomas remains in the mix, without offering any other clues at this situation. He did give forward Tevin Moore 17 minutes against Arkansas, and when State clawed within four points late it was Moore taking the clutch shot. It missed, and only the coach and club know what was supposed to happen there. But relying on a volunteer player at crunch time reminds how short the roster is even with everybody active.
Now the short-squad readies for a big challenge. It's not a pleasant topic but had to be asked: with not a lot left to play for can the Bulldogs motivate themselves by chances of hurting another team's season? Certainly a loss to State could cripple Tennessee's NCAA hopes. "I don't think we can focus in on being a spoiler," Ray said. "Some people do, but I focus in on getting our team better."
And somehow, someway snapping this streak. Borchert says love of the game itself should be enough inspiration for a proud athlete to take the court ready.
"We'll get over this hump somehow. We just have to go out and compete."