Wishing to lengthen a season may seem curious since Mississippi State (13-18, 3-15 SEC) heads into the conference tournament on a 13-loss streak. Most would just want to get it over and take whatever is left of the school's spring break. Certainly none foresee any sort of tournament title run to grab a post-season bid.
Then again players don't necessarily see situations the same. In fact, "Everybody feels good right now so it's a positive going into the tournament," guard I.J. Ready said. "It could be a brand-new start."
Or if not a new start to an already-lost season, at least a fresh beginning for the future according to guard Craig Sword. He even put up a bracket for the rest of the team to check. "I'm trying to get everybody to where we can start next year off right, and win a couple of games in the tournament."
Such talk does meet one criteria Coach Rick Ray has laid out for the week. "Our guys have to go in with a positive mindset. I know it's hard to do in a losing streak. But we have got to have a couple of upbeat practices." The practicing began Monday morning in fact, as the Bulldogs are leaving for Atlanta around 5:00. Vanderbilt also arrives Monday, thanks to the expanded SEC Tourney format begun a year ago to fit 14 teams.
These clubs met in Nashville five weeks ago, with Vanderbilt winning 55-49. The Bulldogs got a rare good day of outside shooting and battled evenly on the boards, but still couldn't hit the attempts that mattered most when a road victory seemed in reach. "Obviously we've watched our first game extensively," said Ray, as well as the last three weeks' worth of Commodore contests.
Vanderbilt (15-15, 7-11 SEC) isn't coming to the Georgia Dome hot either, having lost the last four and seven of nine games. A long season has taken its toll on a short roster, something with which Ray can certainly sympathize. This is the lowest-scoring SEC squad, 13th in shooting both overall and outside, and 11th in rebounding. The Commodores have tweaked the lineup a little at times from what State saw back on February 1. But the same bodies will play, and in the same styles.
"The thing you worry about when you play a Kevin Stallings-coached team is how well prepared they'll be in executing what they do," Ray said. Of course it's simpler to execute with senior Rod Odom at forward, a 6-9 who can score inside but thrives at long range with 82 treys out of his 132 total baskets. Odom is also having a career year rebounding. He and forward James Siakam combine for nearly 11 boards, and the latter is really efficient on the offensive glass for second-chance points.
The big body though is 6-10 center Damian Jones. He scores as openings present and gets to misses, as what Ray calls "Such a long, physical presence on the offense and defensive ends." Guard Kyle Fuller, is second in SEC assists and will stick a jumper or two himself, though his scoring pace has fallen off over the last three weeks. Dai-Jon Parker's production is headed the other direction, as a 25-point afternoon at Oxford showed.
Vanderbilt doesn't have a lot of personnel available but those present can account for all assignments. Which is what makes preparing for this matchup more troubling to Ray. "They have so many sets, and you can't walk through them all. You have to rely on principles. And I expect to see a lot of zone."
No surprise there. Every coach worth his courtesy car keys sees how vulnerable Mississippi State is to zone of all sets and spacings. And whatever the approach Vanderbilt does deliver on defensive end; 2nd in SEC-game shooting, 5th best at the arc, and 4th in scoring. Against a Bulldog team that has made just 83 treys in 18 conference games (next lowest is Kentucky at 91 and they have lots of inside punch) the arc is that much easier to cover.
Ray won't give up entirely on outside shooting, if only because good zones require attempting it anyway. It's worth remembering how Fred Thomas hit three treys at Vanderbilt, because the sophomore guard has made eight more in his last four games. The right sort of streaky shooting by Thomas (8.9ppg) would be big Wednesday, just as it would for senior forward Colin Borchert to snap out of his own long-range slump. Those two Dogs would force Vanderbilt to reconsider their approach into something more favorable for slasher guard Craig Sword and center Gavin Ware.
After putting up a career 33 points at LSU, soph Sword struggled to get shots for three games around one missed for a family emergency. But in the home finale he was back on track with 19 points, driving for baskets inside the arc and better inside the lane and drawing fouls the same way as back in January. Ray reminds though how Sword's offense usually comes after team defense.
"The key is us getting stops and getting out before they get set up. That's where Chicken is best, in transition." Failing that, or if the fastbreak is stalled into set-offense, Ray still looks for Sword to create looks. Though, "Until guys make some shots there won't be driving lanes for Chicken."
All the zones State sees might as well be labeled ‘BeWare' because they are aimed first at the sophomore center. Ware has been frustrated on offense, with just 24 total shots taken in the last five games. Against South Carolina he was 0-of-3 and took just four foul shots too, despite 30 minutes of work. Vanderbilt limited Ware to 3-of-5 shooting in round-one.
It's far too late to try anything different than forcing the ball inside to Ware for a shot, maybe; or having Sword just force matters himself for tough attempts. "But other guys have to be able to make more shots, too," Ray said.
The best part of Ray's first Mississippi State season was around this time, as those Bulldogs snapped a 13-loss streak before the regular season ran out. Another scheduled game win was followed by a first-round Tournament victory over South Carolina. It allowed the debut year to end on an upbeat theme.
A year later there was no end-of-schedule rally. Just the opposite, as now State has tied its second-longest losing streak of any sort. The longest? A 14-game skid during the 1954-55 season, though three of those defeats were non-conference games. This is not the sort of history any team wants to tie.
The advantage of youth is how history is right now. And, how every game is a fresh start of some sort. It is why a lot of pups who just watched their classmates head out on spring break can head for Atlanta at least talking about extending their season.
"I've been waiting on it," says rookie Ready, "trying to forget about everything that's been happening and trying to get a couple of victories."