Utah State indeed does present a complete change of pace for Mississippi State, when they collide at Humphrey Coliseum this Saturday. Game time is 12:02 for SEC Network+, which is on-line viewing only. With the #4-ranked Bulldogs playing Vanderbilt at 6:30, football parking will take precedence on campus all day.
The basketball Bulldogs are unbeaten after wins over Western Carolina and Mississippi Valley State. Expected victories to be sure. Still those solid successes for a MSU team that continues to blend its available veterans with a host of new personnel. And, to cope for the continued absence of two guards which will continue through this game too.
Now comes a much more serious challenge. Utah State arrives 3-0 with wins over Weber State, at Illinois State, and Santa Clara. They also bring something State hasn’t seen in the first two tests.
”Utah State is a disciplined basketball club,” Ray said. “They are always looking for ways to score in their sets. And they have about 50 sets.” Written on two play-cards, the Bulldog coach added, though much like some football systems one is ‘fake’ and the other the real game plan. “So it’s hard to pick up.”
Ray and his veterans, the healthy ones at least, saw a lot of those sets a year ago when Mississippi State played at Utah State and lost 84-68. This is a return-game, a chance for the Bulldogs to balance the books. But it will demand the best mental preparation possible because unlike Monday’s win over rambling and scrambling Valley State the Aggies force foes to work, work, and work some more. They can play this way because the roster is always experienced and not built on new talents each season.
”They always have veteran guys on their team,” Ray said. “Older guys, because they have 20-year-old freshmen and some 23-year-old seniors. So they’ll be a veteran ball club and really screwed-down.” Not only that, this system has been in place for 17 seasons now under Coach Stew Morrill, who has 387 wins at USU and 605 in his 29-year career.
This third season under Ray’s management is barely begun but Mississippi State is showing progress. And if beating the first two foes was expected, doing it short-handed in the backcourt gave greater encouragement. Unfortunately Ray said junior Craig Sword nor sophomore I.J. Ready will be activated this weekend. Both are coming off pre-season back procedures to relieve disc issues.
Sword’s status has actually been downgraded the last couple of days. Ray had thought the team’s top returning scorer might get cleared by this time. Today he reported Sword is still having some problems as he upgrades his practice efforts. Surprisingly Ready, originally booked for a mid-December comeback, might be activated sooner now.
”It’s the same step-by-step each day,” said Ray.
For now senior Trivante Bloodman is the only point guard on the roster. He’s responded to the extra minutes well, not only giving out 13 assists but making well-picked shots for a 9.0 point average. Bloodman can’t go entire games though so junior Fred Thomas has filled the quarterback gap as necessary. It has not limited his offense; in fact Thomas is off to good season-start at 16.0 points and made five of his nine trey-tries as well as 11 of 13 free throw chances.
Ray said Thomas’ individual efforts to get stronger and smarter over the summer is paying off in his third season. “He doesn’t even look like the same body-type. The other things is knowing what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s put in a lot of time trying to be a better basketball player.”
Freshman Maurice Dunlap was signed to shoot first and has thrown up some longballs in his substitute role. At the same time Ray has found minutes the first two games to let the kid play point. It hasn’t been pretty but Dunlap will be the better for all such experience.
Even with a full-strength guard roster this would be a team built around the frontcourt. The veterans have delivered. Junior Gavin Ware is scoring 16.5 points on 72% shooting, and doing it either at center or forward with a nice mid-range shot. The early-season surprise is senior forward Rocquez Johnson. The master of the ‘garbage’ basket most of his career, Johnson is making all sorts of points happen now and netting 18.0 in two starts. He’s also hit 82% whether driving the lane or on his specialty, the rebound-and-putback bucket.
Of course a coach can find a down-side to most everything. The ‘price’ to dominating play from the older Dog bigs is less work early on for the newcomers. Not that center Fallou Ndoye is entirely new, having redshirted last winter. But this is his first varsity work and in 25 minutes he has attempted just one official shot. Ndoye made it too, but Ray wants to see more.
Only, “Gavin has been playing well and it’s hard to get Fallou out there.” Ray also needs to get freshman Oliver Black more live turns, especially on the offensive end.
Taking his shots isn’t an issue for forward Demetrius Houston. And while the freshman is just 2-of-10 the skill is there. Maybe the real difficulty getting good reads on the rookies is how much and when they play. Either they will be on the court with veterans and thus deferring to elders; or they will be in a mostly-new lineup with nobody sure who is to do what. The same holds when redshirt transfer forward Travis Daniels is in the mix.
”So we’ve got to find a way in our substitution patterns not to have so many new players out there,” Ray said. This should be a bit simpler when Ready and Sword return.
Meanwhile there won’t be much in the way of simplicity about Mississippi State’s next test. And that is good, to Ray. Maybe it might have been better for the record to schedule another win rather than bring in quality competition.
But, “When all is said and done this is the first time you can have a true barometer of our program and where it’s going,” Ray said.
The Bulldogs have a fast turnaround before hosting Clayton State next Monday, before heading to the Corpus Christi Coastal Challenge for their first road experience.