Home Court Can Change State's Season

It can be called must-win. The better way to frame Mississippi State’s contest with visiting Arkansas State is must-not-lose.

Because if the Bulldogs can’t defend their home court Wednesday evening, against one of the lowest-rated basketball clubs in the country, the consequences would be nothing short of calamitous. Which just might serve to spur a Mississippi State (5-3) team needing to snap out of a skid.

Game time in Humphrey Coliseum is 6:00 for the SEC Network.

It has been over three weeks since the Bulldogs played in the Hump, a November 24 beating of lower-division guest Clayton State. The last victory? That wasn’t a whole lot more recent, when State beat St. Louis in the opening round of the Corpus Christi Classic on November 28.

Since then Coach Rick Ray’s team has dropped three well-scattered games, all away from campus. Now they are home and intend to make use of familiar settings. “It gives us another opportunity to build as a team,” said guard Fred Thomas.

Thomas could just as easily said re-build, now that the full roster is available. The return of guards I.J. Ready and Craig Sword give Ray all the pieces he’d planned for here in year-three. He was even able to give junior Sword, last seasons’ scoring leader, his first start Saturday and 31 minutes of work at Oregon State.

Results were mixed. On the physical front Sword said he felt fine. Or “great” to be accurate. “Because Coach gave me a lot of reps in practice and I earned my spot.” Sword also reported feeling fine today right after a hard Tuesday practice. The game results, though were less great: 3-of-8 shooting with 2-of-7 work at the arc for eight points. Taking all but one shot from long range and making just one free throw appearance, missing it, showed Sword still has some rust.

Because when backcourt Bulldog is best is when slashing, attacking, forcing defenses to react to his moves. “I’ve got to get back used to running up and down the court,” Sword said. “During practice I’ve been running a lot, so it should change.”

State can absolutely use a change for the better on offense. It is no coincidence that the three-straight losses (TCU, at Tulane, at Oregon State) have produced poor shooting. The 38.2% accuracy, if that is the word, at Tulane was the best rate of the streak. At Oregon State the Dogs were 17-of-49, 34.7%. Some of this was due to falling behind fast and far and trying to gun their way back with jumpshots, which is by no means a team strength.

In fact the irony of the latest loss was how Thomas and Sword gave some false hope by sticking five treys between them, but in 15 attempts as the misses returned. State took 23 total trey-tries in that game, as many as the two previous losses combined as those games were much closer and more competitive. But still, the shooting just wasn’t good enough anywhere.

The other indicator is rebounding; the Bulldogs have significantly more boards at the end of wins and a few fewer in each loss. Few really figured this would be a sharp-shooting squad, at least at the arc. Getting beat on the boards with a bigger, more physical and deeper roster is surprising and worrisome considering the competition seen so far.

Ask Ray though, and he looks to other issues. At his last press meeting, before the Corpus Christi trip, the coach was concerned with turnovers. Some he expected while soph point guard Ready recovered from October back surgery and senior Trivante Bloodman was the only seasoned quarterback available. To his credit Bloodman has been serviceable at point just like last year, but he is 7-of-19 shooting in the three losses.

Ready isn’t an offensive force himself but by selecting shots is 9-of-20 for four games, and gradually getting up to speed at mid-schedule. Still the rate of turnovers-to-assists is too negative for now.

And even when the offense is run and proper pass delivered, misses result too often. Center Gavin Ware is 10-of-29 in the losing streak, nothing near what a veteran post player should produce. And after torching St. Louis with outside shots, forward Travis Daniels has slumped in the same stretch to 7-of-23 overall and 0-of-7 on trey-tries. One small positive is a couple of better efforts from forward Roquez Johnson, 7-of-14 the last two games.

State also played at Corvallis without freshman forward Demetrius Houston for a minor injury. He was practicing Tuesday and should be ready to play this game. “Kind of winded,” Thomas reported. “But he’s going to get back at it.” Getting this special young athlete back to speed can only help, though that short setback does remind that while Ray has been able to use a regular starting lineup so far the substitutions and rotations haven’t found a productive pattern.

Or, not yet? It is a hopeful thought that Ray can use the first eight games, and some of the upcoming contests, to settle several questions prior to conference season. He has three home games and a fourth contest in Jackson this Saturday (South Carolina Upstate) out of the next five dates to work with. And if those RPI lists reflect any reality, the Bulldogs ought to be favored in all of them.

Certainly Wednesday sets up as a miss-match. Arkansas State (2-4) ranks near the bottom of all power-index lists, such as 335 out of 351 teams rated by ESPN. The Bulldogs are 74th as of today, by the way, though just 137th in the network’s BPI rankings. One of the two ASU wins is against NAIA member Belhaven, which happens to be the alma mater of Red Wolves coach and 1983-90 Mississippi State assistant John Brady.

He has one standout player worth watching in forward Anthony Livingston with averages of 17.3 points and 6.5 rebounds. Brady also has a team that shoots the long ball well, or at least better than the Bulldogs do. So State can’t afford to take this home game for granted.

As motivation? That they most definitely can do. Sword said it is showing at practice.

”We’ve been doing a lot of competition things with each other, so we can get ready for teams like USC-Upstate and Arkansas State.”

Saturday's game at the Mississippi Coliseum with USCU is 3:00.

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