“It’s a big weekend for us,” Ray said. “Actually, the next two weekends.”
With Mississippi State off to a 5-1 start to the season, their third-year coach really can spare at least some thought on what is possible at the far end. Despite taking their first loss, to TCU in the finals of the Corpus Christi Challenge, the Bulldogs got some encouraging news this week.
Encouraging numbers, rather. “We’re sitting at #43 in the nation in RPI,” Ray reported. Beating Utah State at home, then St. Louis in the first CCC round, has given Mississippi State an early-season boost in those calculations. It has to be an impressive one too given other wins were over Mississippi Valley and Western Carolina.
Even a 61-52 loss to TCU on a neutral court did no harm and might have helped just a bit. At the same time, good wins count much more and Mississippi State has its opportunities directly ahead. The first is Saturday when the Bulldogs take on Tulane (6-1). Game time in Devlin Fieldhouse is 1:00.
The venue is very old, more popularly known as Fogelman Arena. But it is entirely new to these Bulldogs. Mississippi State hasn’t played the Green Wave in their gym since December 2001; or won there since 1966 when both schools were still part of the original Southeastern Conference. When Tulane left the league that year the series, played since 1909, ended and there have been just five meetings since. All were won by Bulldog teams.
Winning this rematch would continue one streak and snap another. The Bulldogs have lost their last 17 road games (not neutral or tournament). Yet Ray sees a still-developing squad that should start scoring victories on other folks’ courts. Starting this Saturday, hopefully, said the coach who is again thinking in RPI terms.
“The biggest stat are road wins. So we have opportunities to win at Tulane and Oregon State (December 13). This would be the biggest boost we have in our non-conference schedule. We’re in a good spot even with the loss to TCU. We need to make sure we boost that right now.”
Tulane is coming off a 17-17 season and 8-8 record in CUSA, before transitioning this year to the American Conference. The Wave also has thrashed Mississippi Valley State along with Southeastern Louisiana and Tennessee Tech, and lost to Wake Forest. But a 83-70 win at Loyola-Chicago got Ray’s attention.
The Wave has settled on a regular lineup of all veterans, including three guards who had 400 or more points last season. Senior Jay Hook (12.3 ppg) is setting program records for three-pointers and hitting 40% at the arc this year, but he’s not the only outside threat. Junior Louis Dabney (12.6) has made a dozen treys on 46% accuracy, with soph Jonathan Stark (10.7, 28 assists) running the show.
The big bodies don’t have big numbers but 6-11 post Ryan Smith takes up lots of space and four-man Trey Drye does something of everything. Ray sees an offense that will take the open three but switches freely with the big guards and forward for matchups. “We just have to make sure we take away some of those perimeter opportunities they have.”
For his part Ray’s perimeter possibilities have increased with the return of point guard I.J. Ready the past four games; and now with guard Craig Sword back for two games. ‘Back’ is a relative term for junior Sword admittedly. Being down over a month after back surgery is nothing to shake-off suddenly. “Obviously he’s now where we want him to be at this point,” Ray said, adding Sword—last year’s leading scorer—has only begun regular practicing recently and lack of conditioning shows.
Sword did get in 22 minutes at Corpus Christi without much to show for it. But he did play consecutive days without issues, either. Ray said Sword is trying to speed-up recovery by practicing with the scout team as much as the varsity, doing double-shifts essentially. State won’t rush him into too much game action, not with SEC season ahead. “Then we’re going to see the guy we’re used to seeing.”
Ready’s 27% shooting eye needs more time but he’s accounted for 11 assists with just two turnovers so the play-making is on track. The larger positive is soon State should have all pieces available. “I’d like to think so,” Ray said. “Once those guys get to where they were last year then I think we’ll truly be able to see where we are.”
Something State saw against St. Louis was the more assertive and offense-ive Travis Daniels Ray had talked about. The forward threw in four treys and four other shots to score 21 points in the win. “I just felt I had to step up,” Daniels said. “I wanted to come out with a great aggressiveness.” He tried to the next night but was 2-of-5 shooting with five total points. “I guess they scouted on me.”
Regardless, this is what Ray hoped Daniels would bring after sitting out his transfer season. In fact, the coach wants even more aggressiveness on offense. “We need him to be selfish,” said Ray. “We also need to put him in positions where we make him score. My hope is what you saw against St. Louis becomes commonplace.”
At the same time State is built around the inside punch of center Gavin Ware (13.8 ppg) and creative points provided by guard Fred Thomas (13.3). Thomas has turned into a much more consistent shooter this third season, 13-of-27 at the arc; the rest of the roster has ten treys combined. And while forward Roquez Johnson’s ability to score ‘trash’ points on pure effort plays is not a surprise, his 12.2 points-per and 60% accuracy so far are.
Getting Ready back in rotation also takes some load off senior Trivante Bloodman who was the only healthy point guard when the season tipped off. Now Bloodman need not pace himself and can play all-out every minute.
The only trouble, if that’s the word, with the greater depth this third season is figuring how and when to get minutes to the alternates. Center Fallou Ndoye and forward Demetrius Houston are right around 16 minutes each game, and they don’t merely bide time for starters. They are providing points and boards and defense on their own.
Speaking of defense, that is the first fact Ray expects from State Saturday. This again is a road game, and “Defense travels,” the coach said. “What you want to do when you go on the road is have your principles defensively and don’t turn the basketball over.”
A fine theory; putting it into practice on somebody else’s home court for the first time is the real test. Not that Ray will cut his club much slack on this score. “If you’re affected by a road crowd, you’re not a good basketball player,” the coach bluntly said.
These Bulldogs believe they are good enough to pass such a test, and score more RPI points in the process.
“The biggest thing is getting used to the environment and the atmosphere,” said rookie Houston. “And just come out with a W.”