Before the ball is tossed to tip, seniors Borchert and Cunningham will be recognized as this year's departing class. Ray, who recruited Borchert out of junior college and made walk-on Cunningham a full varsity player, does intend these Dogs receive their due…with an understanding of what a home finale is really about.
"It's not like they're putting on a cap-and-gown and walking across the stage to get a degree," the coach said. That ceremony at the Hump takes place in about two more months. So for now, "They still understand we're getting ready for the SEC Tournament, for South Carolina, there's still things at hand."
Mississippi State (13-17, 3-14) doesn't have lots left to play for in any big picture. But second-year coach Ray is correct that there are a few things available. Foremost would be snapping a 12-loss streak and ending a regular season with at least one more win…and in the process matching the 4-14 mark of last season. A victory would also be Mississippi State's 400th at Humphrey Coliseum. Maybe more on Ray's mind is the many months ahead before the Bulldogs are back on their home court.
The long off-season would be a bit more bearable if this team can exit the Hump feeling better about themselves. So Senior Day aside, "You still have a game to play and guys have to go out and execute. Everybody knows me by now that I'm going to approach things a certain way, and the task at hand is to win a ball game. And I think that's the mindset our guys have."
The Gamecocks come to campus in a curious situation. A week ago they pulled off maybe this season's signature SEC upset by knocking off Kentucky 72-67, a win which also pushed South Carolina out of the conference cellar. Three days later, also at home, Frank Martin's team was routed by #1 Florida, and an inconvenient camera caught the volatile coach's colorful huddle talk. The end result was a one-game suspension, so South Carolina will be without the boss for their road trip. And this team is already 0-11 away from home.
Ray is still concerned about team aspects that don't need sideline instruction. "The first thing that jumps out is their toughness. They go out and make it a physical ball game." Very much so if judged by an average of 23 fouls with 18 total disqualifications in 30 games. 6-9 Demetrius Henry averages a personal every 5.4 minutes. But when the grabbing and shoving begins, "You can't look at the referees," Ray is telling his team.
"Frank has always coached his guys to be tough and if you're not prepared to battle you're going to have a hard time."
For all their struggles the Gamecocks have some matchups that worry State. 6-5 guad Sindarius Thornwell is a sure all-conference freshman, averaging 13.3 points with 90 assists. "He's taken on the duties of point guard and he's going to be a really good player," Ray said. "Michael Carrera plays so hard, and Brenton Williams can stretch you out with his shooting." Senior Williams has knocked down 80 of his team's 165 treys to average 14.8 points, and is the SEC's leading free-thrower.
South Carolina does struggle with overall shooting, a SEC-low 41.8%, and are next-to-last in shooting defense…though a bit in front of last-place State in that regard. And for a Bulldog team which finds shooting and scoring difficult against all opponents, Ray recognizes "They're going to pose some problems on the defensive end where they're going to fight you for every pass."
Everything has been a fight for a Bulldog bunch which last won on January 22. Six weeks of losses have added up the fourth-longest such streak ever at State…but still short of the 13-straight dropped by last year's team. Avoiding a repeat-streak is pressure enough. Yet the Dogs aren't exactly on an uptick coming into the finale.
Just the opposite, as Wednesday's trip to Georgia was as poor a performance as any in a struggling season. State shot 34% against an average defensive team and missed all 15 three-point tries, and were beaten on the boards as well. The four assists were a season-low and not a single Dog scored double-digits.
Even before that trip few were playing well offensively, other than guard Fred Thomas who'd posted consecutive 18-point games and seemed to have the shooting eye at last. Then he went 0-of-4 at the arc. Guard I.J. Ready, supposed to be the best of this bunch on long-range, is 0-8 in the last five games. Outside shooting of course is the greatest single weakness on this squad as a whole, with 138 treys made in 30 games. That's even behind last year's pace of 4.7-per game. Borchert has struggled with 2-of-8 treying in the last three games, though a last turn on the home court could help him show some touch again.
Anything would be better than 0-of-15 certainly. Ray knew going into the season there would be liabilities at the arc, he just didn't know it would be this poor. Lack of three-point punch and even enough mid-range jump shooting has impacted everything the team has tried in set offense…and made life harder on center Gavin Ware. "We don't have enough guys to make shots where (teams) can't pack around," Ray said. Ware has been efficient enough when getting the ball in lone matchups inside as 64% shooting the last seven games shows. The problem is, State's post has averaged just five—five!!—field goal attempts during the same stretch.
And guard Craig Sword smay have spent his best shots in a magnificent 33-point effort at LSU. Since then he's shot 11-of-26 for 28 total points in three games, with one missed for a family funeral. If anyone needs a big home-court push to conclude a season it is this sophomore, to spring him and classmates Ware and Thomas into the future.
The two seniors' future heads in other directions after next week's SEC Tournament where the season will end. Neither will have prominent places in program history to be sure. Their two-year coach won't forget though.
"I think Tyson's story is a great story," Ray said. "Starting off being a practice player for the women's team, and evolving into a guy who is not just a walk-on but a key contributor." Even if circumstances contributed, all the minutes this volunteer received in two seasons is reason for Cunningham to leave content. Borchert's tale is interesting in that once upon a time he was a highly-rated Arizona recruit who didn't find the basketball fast track. For his own reasons, Borchert will agree.
Ray is still impressed how Borchert handled the strange career turns that took him to Scooba, Miss., for junior college basketball and then to joining a new staff at Mississippi State. "It's always harder for a junior college kid, the freshman knows he has four, maybe five years to make his imprint on a program. There's always pressure coming in and being part of a team and getting his. Collin has handled things the right way."
Another Bulldog senior, though not a basketball player, will be part of Saturday events. All-SEC offensive guard Gabe Jackson will be recognized at halftime. Also, the 19-2 Bulldog softball team has moved their Saturday game time to 1:00 so as not to conflict with basketball.