Exhibition Is First Test For Third Ray Squad

The game won’t count towards any record or standings…but in Rick Ray’s mind it does indeed matter when Mississippi State takes the court Thursday against Delta State. “I’m really looking forward to our first game, whether it be exhibition or regular season.”

Now for the non-record it is an exhibition, tipping off in Humphrey Coliseum at 6:00. It is also the only official practice game for Ray’s third Mississippi State squad, which opens the real season November 14. Only official because over the weekend the Bulldogs played a ‘secret scrimmage’ against UAB, secret in the sense it could not be publicized, watched, or reported not even a stat sheet.

Got all that straight? Good, because Ray counts tomorrow as the first real test for a Bulldog bunch combining lots of familiar, lots of new, and a heckuva lot of unknowns. Answers only come with competition and the coaching staff has their questions.

“Delta State gives our guys an opportunity to go out and play,” said Ray. Meaning all his guys. Because, “Although we do have a lot of experience we have a lot of guys who haven’t played major college basketball before.”

The first ‘lot’ lists seven returning lettermen from year-two under Ray (24-41 at State), though two of them won’t be participating Thursday or potentially longer. Junior G Craig Sword, last year’s scoring leader at 13.7 points, continues his deliberate comeback from an operation for a bulging back disc. The condition, not caused by play or practice, would have eventually put Sword out so it was addressed a month ago.

Ray is encouraged by the recovery rate. “He’s had no discomfort or pain since that time,” the coach said. In fact, “He’s been in all the film sessions and going through the set plays 5-on-0.” Ray reports that technically Sword is cleared for competition now. “But we don’t want to throw him out there.”

Because the obvious goal is having the team’s top all-arounder available for the rest of the season. But Sword might be needed back in operation sooner than originally planned anyway. Ray announced today sophomore point guard I.J. Ready (5.9 ppg, 69 assists) also has had a back procedure, last Friday, for a cyst. The optimistic time-line would have Ready return in mid-December though Ray won’t take any chances here either.

So suddenly that scrimmage game with UAB should prove more valuable, because it allowed Mississippi State to play with the personnel available right now. Ray won’t have to throw a raw rookie into the quarterback role either, with senior Trivante Bloodman (6.5, 82 assists) having run the offense for two years either starting or subbing.

For now, “I expect it’s going to be Trivante, and it’s not like Trivante doesn’t have experience,” Ray said. Bloodman will get a lot of that now as the coach figures he’ll have to put in “35 minutes” of the exhibition. Then the next nine days can be used getting junior guard/forward Fred Thomas (9.3 ppg, 46 three-pointers) and true freshman Maurice Dunlap ready for rotation work at point.

Thomas will have his usual swing-man job of course, and is the team’s top backcourt defender. Putting the ball in his hands on the far end should not be a huge challenge in the early season either. “Fred is more than capable of serving as the backup,” Ray said. “And it’s something Maurice can do as well.” Dunlap was signed more as a shooter though, something Bulldog basketball has desperately needed the past two seasons.

Ray is optimistic about Dunlap’s larger game, actually. “The thing I’ve seen from Maurice is him picking up on the game of basketball. He truly does love playing basketball so he’s spent a lot of time on his own seeing film and meeting with the assistant coaches.” Now, the head coach says, with real experience the mental wheels will stop spinning and the new kid just play the game.

”Because we’re going to need him to make some shots.”

When Sword is activated it will be as a two-guard primarily though of course the junior can handle the ball full- or half-court as needed until Ready also returns.

Fans are certainly curious to see if State will shoot the jumpers better this year. Of more interest is how much help a frontcourt with both real size and genuine depth will change everything else about the program. Having played with only one real ‘post’ player for two seasons, Ray has a trio of bodies to put around the rim.

The sleeker, better-conditioned Gavin Ware (10.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg) is State’s two-season centerpiece. Now he has help…and competition too. C Fallou Ndoye sat out all last winter working towards eligibility, and learning about the American game for another whole year. The results, reportedly, is a 6-11 presence in the lane that instantly upgrades the Dog defense. But insiders say Ndoye will be a sneaky and surprising offensive contributor, too.

Now add a third big kid with 6-9, 222-pound Oliver Black and for a big change Ware can go at it full-speed in his minutes and not worry so much about the early fouls that benched him as a sophomore. Ray also likes how Ware, not the most assertive soul on the roster, has had to actually compete with teammates for a very needed change. Ware might also end up teaming with Ndoye in a ‘big’ lineup and play facing the basket.

At the same time State now has as many options at power forward as in the post. Old hand Rocquez Johnson (9.7, 4.6) is the squad leader in ‘junk’ plays on both ends with quickness and smarts. Ray is high on athletic big forward Demetrius Houston adding not just depth but intensity to the front line. In fact the coach said a preseason challenge has been channeling Houston’s energy.

”You worry about trying to make the spectacular play, he’s such a spectacular athlete.” Athleticism and a level of skill is what F Travis Daniels was to add last winter, only to miss half the season for transfer eligibility and sit the rest rather than waste the whole year.

Daniels like Ndoye has benefitted from the unexpected ‘redshirt’ season. “It’s unique because those guys have been in the program,” Ray said. “They won’t go out there with high anxiety, they’ll just go out and play. Travis naturally is going to try to take over games, he’ll penetrate and make some plays, and probably make too many passes. Fallou will get the ball in the post so you don’t have to worry about that.”

State’s depth has taken a preseason shot though, as juco forward Johnny Zuppardo suffered a practice knee injury requiring surgery. He’s out for the first year, taking away a tall offensive option State wanted for miss-matches. At least there is depth to counter the sort of blow that the past two seasons could have crippled lots more than one Dog.

The exhibition serves the useful purpose of putting players together in game situations which can be practiced but not truly tested. Ray doesn’t have much of a ‘script’ in mind right now, beyond Bloodman’s assignments, and wants to mix-and-match much as practical.

“It all depends on the flow of the game. The most important thing is try to win, that will dictate how we play some of our minutes. But I’d like to get some of those inexperienced guys out there and get their feet wet, if our veterans do their job then we can do that.”

Delta State is the reigning Gulf South Conference champions after a 24-6 season under second-year Coach Jim Boone. The Statesmen lost three starters and returns just four lettermen.

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