“We haven’t won in a while,” Gavin Ware said. “We’ve been in a drought, we have to come out of that.”
It isn’t a long dry spell in terms of losses to be fair. Mississippi State has only dropped its last two games. What junior center Ware means is how long between wins the Bulldogs have gone. The last victory was November 28, in the Corpus Christi Classic first round. A finals loss followed; then a whole week later State fell at Tulane.
Now it is an entire ‘nother week before State (5-2) takes another shot at success. And, takes to the road again, with a trip to Oregon State (5-2). Saturday’s game-time in Corvallis is 1:00 local, 3:00 central. And if Ware wants to talk about a real drought…look at the road game record.
It has been 23 months since a Mississippi State squad scored a victory on the opponent’s home court. That last time was in January 2013 at Georgia, in Coach Rick Ray’s first SEC road trip. That was 18 ‘true’ road games ago, which doesn’t count tournament and neutral sites and such.
Whatever the calculating though, it’s clear enough. These Bulldogs need a win of any sort. A 5-0 start has faded too fast, especially in last week’s 59-54 setback to a Tulane team which offered every opportunity to get a good win. Now, said Ware, this trip to Oregon State is even more important.
“I mean that’s all Coach talks about. Improving our resume. He talks about being in position for post-season basketball, so a win at Oregon State will be good for boosting our RPI.”
A week ago Ray was feeling upbeat about the Bulldogs’ rating-power-index. Now? Not so much after missing a promising shot at Tulane. Literally, as State was only 38% from the floor and 2-of-13 at the arc. Outside shooting is of course a well-known issue for MSU anyway. Ray will take whatever trey-points he can get as almost a bonus.
The frustration was closer to the goal as the starting frontcourt went 13-of-29 against the Green Wave. Ware and forwards Travis Daniels and Roquez Johnson all did score in double-digits and made enough free throws when given chances. It was finding a way to get that one momentum-turning shot to go down that allowed Tulane to stay in front. That, and some surprising struggles with rebounding.
Ware also said State didn’t get the job done defensively, though holding the home team to 42% shooting with more turnovers counters this notion. It was more timing than totals. “We had a lack of communication,” said Ware, “and they executed on our mistakes. So when we play against Oregon State we have to be locked in on every possession and grind out every trip up and down the floor.”
Ray hasn’t taken the latest loss lightly. “Practice has been tough,” Ware admitted. “We’ve been focusing more on the fundamentals, and the scouting.” The latter is obvious since opponents change; the former is curious and maybe worrisome. Seven games into the schedule a team ought have fundamentals down.
Or, maybe not quite yet. It still needs reminding that Ray began the season with two veteran guards sidelined and the frontcourt still taking shape with redshirts and newcomers. While the same fivesome has started every game so-far, the substitution patterns for individuals and groups has been a night to night shuffle. The positive is plenty minutes to evaluate everyone.
The downside has been some cost to cohesion. It’s a necessary trade-off and might not be over yet with the return of point guard I.J. Ready and, to a lesser extent, all-around guard Craig Sword. His comeback might have been too early because the junior and returning scoring leader has struggled with conditioning and timing. Sword hasn’t scored a point in 24 minutes, though he’s only tried three shots to be fair.
Without Sword, the offensive load has been carried by Ware (13.4ppg, 55% shooting) working inside; and by junior guard Fred Thomas (12.6, 15 treys) working everywhere. Thomas is still not as efficient as wanted at 41% overall shooting, yet his outside touch is better than ever this third year in college competition.
And through November, the active and athletic Johnson had been giving reliable points on all sorts of plays. He’s still averaging 11.9 with 59% shooting, but the last three games the scoring has dropped-off from the fast start. That could be another concern since it echoes his previous two season trends of scoring a lot in the first weeks and struggling once the calendar turns over.
State’s wild card though is Daniels. In the win over St. Louis, easily the best-rated victory of this season to date, the wing forward was 4-of-5 at the arc for 21 total points. In the two losses since, Daniels is 6-of-15 on all shots. He did get to the stripe at Tulane a lot by being aggressive and working for rebounds and was the single largest reason the Dogs had a chance to win.
The fact remains, this is a team which must grind out most of the points they score. Especially as outside offense just can’t be counted on. If the long balls fall, great. Otherwise, execution is everything. Or almost everything, Ware explained. Defense still comes first in Ray’s mind.
Yet at Tulane, the center saw offensive issues infect that end of the court. “Late game when we weren’t scoring it hindered us on defense. It makes us get down a little bit, our bench wasn’t excited. We weren’t scoring and defensively we decided we’re not going to play.”
No wonder then Ray put the pressure on in practices, in a week already intense enough with final exams. Closing out, helping, and rebounding. “We rebounded so much, I can’t tell you!” Ray said. “Like Coach Ray said, if we focus more on defense the offense will come. We have assets on our team that can score the ball.”
It is barely mid-December with league play weeks away. Still scoring a win now is of even more importance than a week ago, when Ray said he’d seen the Bulldogs’ RPI at 43 in one rankings. As of today, ESPN places State 79th. Which is not terrible by SEC standards since only five league teams are in the top-50 at this point, considered a practical benchmark for NCAA at-large status. Another unofficial site, RealTime RPI, has the Bulldogs only 127th. Oregon State is 156th.
The larger problem is in ESPN’s rankings there are not many opportunities left to gain RPI points. For that matter the best win of the bunch to-date is over Utah State, 121 by ESPN (140 RT). The RealTime folk think much more of St. Louis at 47, compared to ESPN’s 233. Western Carolina is 189, Mississippi Valley State 236th as of the latest ratings.
At least TCU (57th ESPN) is not a ‘bad’ loss. But Tulane is just 140 in the same list. And there are not a lot of RPI-raisers ahead according to ESPN. Arkansas State is 337th out of 351 teams ranked. South Carolina Upstate 210, Jacksonville 341, and McNeese State 90th. Even ACC member Florida State comes in only 172 today. The positive view is all these matchups certainly offer excellent opportunities for Ws and here in year-three Ray’s program needs as many as available.
So scoring a win this weekend is about much, much more than ending any road-drought. It is almost a must to put Mississippi State on a better road to post-season play. It’s about executing, Ware said. That and effort and energy.
”If we bring that against Oregon State, we’ll be fine.”