Ray's Revamped Roster Ready For Opening Night

Rick Ray runs through a potential lineup. “Senior, senior. Junior, junior, junior,” the coach counted down. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t get off to a great start.”

True, not if age matters. Or improved numbers. Or greater size. Or most of the factors which should count towards an improved Mississippi State ball club as their 2014-15 season tips off Friday afternoon.

The third Bulldog basketball season under Ray’s management begins with Western Carolina visiting Humphrey Coliseum. Game time is 5:32 for broadcast by the SEC Network Plus, and is part of a Friday twinbill on campus. The MSU women open their season too, hosting Mercer with tipoff a half-hour after the Bulldogs finish.

If this team has a successful debut it wouldn’t just be great to Ray, it would be historic as well. These Dogs can score the 400th victory in Humphrey Coliseum since the December 1975 opening.

Ray isn’t as concerned with the past, especially the recent seasons where Mississippi State has struggled with all sorts of issues. Most glaringly, lack of size, lack of experience, and lack of numbers, which made just about everything else secondary. Those areas have been gradually addressed and results should start showing.

The size upgrades are easiest to spot. After two years trying to survive with just one real post player, the post has grown-up. Junior Gavin Ware has help. After a year’s wait for eligibility Fallou Ndoye joins the front line, either alternating at center or playing pivot himself with Ware facing the goal. Adding freshman Oliver Black to the roster gives Ray a real rotation for the first time.

The size extends a few steps farther-out too. Senior Rocquez Johnson has soldiered through his career as the power forward of the bunch. Now rookie Demetrious Houston arrives and with flair too, scoring 12 points off the bench in last week’s exhibition against Delta State. Ware had 19 points and Ndoye 11 in the 72-51 win.

Ray is excited what just having numbers of big bodies bodes for the season based purely on practice competition. “The thing we’ve been able to see is our intensity has maintained itself a lot longer in practice,” the coach said. This hopefully translates to turning some tables this winter, wearing-down the other team instead of vice-versa. Besides, there is athleticism inside to go with the more muscle.

Houston certainly showed why he could be special in off-bench exhibition work. “We’re not asking him to be a scorer,” said Ray, but the kid clearly can put up some points. So should Ndoye in a different way. Well, not different in a classic roundball sense, but contrary to the modern trend of forwards playing post. “His strength is really back-to-the-basket.”

So instead of trying to ‘finish’ from a face-up position Ndoye can use size under the goal directly. Though, Ray said, the still-raw African import still has to take care of the ball better and not get stripped by guards in double-teams. Still “I think in a one-on-one situation he’s going to score or get fouled.”

Ware can do that equally well, and also this junior year can afford to be aggressive in the lane. The first two seasons State’s only center tried to avoid fouls. No longer, not if defenses have to respect Houston or Ndoye, or both in a ‘big’ lineup. Then there’s forward Travis Daniels, another athlete who shows skills but needs toughening-up with court time.

”Travis knows what we want out of him,” Ray said, thanks to sitting a year as well. Daniels platooned in junior college and never had a real role. “Because of that his numbers weren’t great. Here we’re asking him to be a much more aggressive scorer. He has the skill set to be a much more aggressive person, him understanding what we want is the biggest difference.”

On paper the backcourt is also deeper and older. The November reality is different; junior guard Craig Sword is coming off an October back procedure to prevent future, major problems. The two-year starter and top returning scorer could be missed, badly, in the early weeks, and has resumbed practicing. But Ray won’t gamble on losing Sword for later. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Also, soph point guard IJ Ready is out until mid-December at least with a back issue of his own. This leaves senior Trivante Bloodman the only quarterback. Ray will ask him to just keep things under control without forcing much, while wing-guard and junior Fred Thomas is now the alternate point guard. Handling the ball is no problem for Thomas, his coach said.

”Sometimes it’s his decision making. Now (Delta State) didn’t pressure so all he had to do was enter the ball to get the offense started. The test will remain to see when he does face a team that denies or presses.” At least that’s something Thomas knows about from the other angle, because he is the team’s top on-ball defender and a key to Ray’s goal of upping pressure on opponents.

The fan focus Friday is sure to be on the area of most concern these first two years: scoring. Or lack thereof. Offense has been all uphill to now, and after a first-half flurry against DSU the Dogs’ pace slowed. The obvious reason was running guys in and out, and that seven of the eleven participants were first-year players. Ray did like the confidence the kids, or jucos or redshirts, showed, and their effort the first time out.

Still points remain a real question, and more so outside shooting. This is where freshman guard Maurice Dunlap is supposed to help. “Oh, he shot some!” Ray responded to questions about Dunlap’s exhibition debut. The coach noted that even when the new kid began cramping (“so called!”) in the second half, he still threw up a three at the next touch.

”You encourage him to take those open shots. We recruited you for a reason because we believed you could make those shot. We want him to have the confidence to take those shots.” And, said Ray, “I don’t think he took any bad shots.”

Ray has scheduled an interesting opening-night matchup. The Catamounts, a first-time opponent, are coming off a 19-15 season with two starters back from the Southern Conference tourney finalists. Ray said Western Carolina works the ball inside first with ‘stagger’ and downscreens and such. “Then they do a good job with Princeton-action to cut guys and get shots.” WCU also has the wing-scoring element to further test some young Dog defenders.

A test the whole team needs at this point. Opening day hasn’t come any too soon, for a first real look at what Mississippi State can become in year-three. As Ray said, “I know our guys are looking forward to getting out on the court again.” Or for the first time, even.

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