Dogs Open SEC Season Hosting Tennessee

They ended pre-conference play with their best effort yet. So Rick Ray is optimistic as his Bulldogs prepare to tip off the SEC schedule. “This team is on the upward swing.”

It says much about Mississippi State’s season so for that Ray can regard one victory as an upswing. Then again after all their December troubles, knocking off Florida State last Friday could become a Bulldog turning point. Just time, especially, for Wednesday’s home SEC opener with Tennessee (8:00, SEC Network).

“I think we’re pretty ready for it,” guard Fred Thomas said. “Last game we came together and we all made sacrifices to help this team win. And I think we’ll be ready for Tennessee.”

They should be. With the roster getting closer to healthy, and individual identities just about settled by 13 pre-conference contests, Ray’s team gets this home-court opportunity to open SEC play positively. Only if they give the same sort effort and get the same execution as their last time out though, the coach cautions.

“That’s a positive thing heading in to SEC play,” Ray said. “We’ve got to make sure our guys understand our performance against Florida State can’t be a one-time affair. It’s got to become who we are.” To that end Ray put the Bulldogs through some pretty intense post-victory practices that might have surprised them. It shouldn’t.

“I tend to be harder on guys after wins like that so they don’t get complacent.”

That’s also an interesting comment since through two-and-a-half seasons State has had little cause for complacency. And, not much in the way of momentum. After opening 5-0 the Bulldogs lost five straight, and beating Florida State only got them above break-even.

By the same token Ray saw some welcome resilience when his team rebounded from an awful loss to McNeese State with a win over the ACC opponent. While the coaching staff wondered where that team had been in a lost December, at least it has shown up in time for SEC season.

Besides, Thomas said, “That was a rebuilding point. That’s how I know we can compete with anybody in this league.”

Tennessee (8-4) is an interesting anybody for a first league test. The Volunteers have some quality wins—Kansas State, Butler—and no bad losses under first-year Coach Donnie Tyndall, formerly from Southern Mississippi. But all is not well at this point. Issues with injuries and eligibility and transfer-redshirting means the Vols come to town with just nine of their 14 roster players available.

”When he gets down to six I’ll be sympathetic!” Ray semi-joked, having been in that situation repeatedly during his first two seasons.

Moreover it is a green roster for the Big Orange, at least in SEC careers, that Tyndall—now the youngest coach in the conference--is hurriedly developing for his own league debut. Given the schedule and the challenges, Tennessee might be ahead of schedule already. But being short-handed for the league lidlifter isn’t an ideal start.

As for matching up, Ray sees something else less-than-ideal. “They’ll play a 2-2-1 press on all makes, and they play zone all the time. So we have to find a way to not turn the ball over, and figure out their zone.” The press isn’t his bigger concern as State has athletes to break it.

The zone? Yes, that is a problem. On their best days the Bulldogs struggle to make long shots, and on other days well…the sub-27% rate on three-point tries tells the tale. Yet Ray is not telling his team don’t shoot, or opponents his team won’t shoot. That frustrating aspect cannot be forgotten entirely.

”You need somebody who is a legitimate threat at the line,” Ray said. “I still think Fred is a threat, the same thing with Travis (Daniels) and IJ (Ready). We do have some guys who are capable of making a shot. What happens is everybody focuses on guys who can make threes and play off the other guys.”

Thomas to be fair has hit 33% of trey-tries this junior season, which would be good on his career pace. But when State was unbeaten he was making mid-40s%. Still some respect has to be shown as Ray said, which ought open up room for others. Forward Daniels has benefitted as a slasher and attacker, and even hit a longball or two himself. In fact his corner-trey in the late second half might have been the key shot of the Florida State win.

Point guard Ready isn’t the same sort of outside threat. He can pop the pullup though and even against the Seminole zone was able to create layups for himself or set up others. Ray agrees it is a lot to ask of a 5-11 kid with an injury history to “stick his nose in there” and risk constant contact. But doing so can beat either man or zone sets if done right.

“Our two best guys coming off ball screen action are Chicken (guard Craig Sword) and IJ,” said Ray. “If IJ continues to be aggressive he’ll have more passing opportunities.”

Getting the ball inside is literally State’s highest-percentage play anyway. Forward Roquez Johnson can do it on his own or in motion offense, but also scores off rebounds, loose balls, turnovers, whatever. This has made him the team’s top scorer at 10.8 points alongside Thomas, not to mention the Dog likeliest to get to the foul line.

An ankle injury to center Gavin Ware let Ray shuffle his lineup which he probably wanted to do already. Starting Daniels and freshman Oliver Black along with center Falloy Ndoye has resulted in a more active and aggressive team at tipoff. Not to mention a more a&a Ware coming off the bench, presumably with something to prove.

“He’s our one guy who is a legitimate threat with his back to the basket,” Ray said. “Roquez needs space to go make lays but Gavin is a true back-to-the-basket guy. He puts pressure on a defense because you can run some set plays or throw it to him inside. And he makes everybody on the court better when he is that post threat.”

Working his way back up to speed Ware is also up to 10.4 points on 51% shooting, and his free throwing of 83.9% is a true bonus. For that matter the entire team is making 73% of foul shots, so taking plays right at defenses is working the odds the right way. Ndoye is a 67% field-shooter but has taken just 32 attempts in 13 games. Ray likes selectiveness of course, he’d just like the redshirt rookie to take a few more shots and chances.

Getting those opportunities inside the Tennessee zone won’t be simple. The Dogs will have to force things outside the lane with Daniels and Ready driving and drawing. The best such threat would be a healthy Sword, who is not quite that yet. But, “Each day we’ve started to see more of him getting back to his old explosive self. We’ve got to get to a point that becomes who he is again.”

For his part Sword feels the pressure to get to that point and better even. This might be the first of 18 SEC dates, but… “We need to play every game like it’s our last,” Sword said.

Or rather, like the last game of pre-SEC season? Ray said he hoped the FSU game was the start of something better. “What I like to see us do is go in with a string of success and not a one-game success. Can our guys continue to put together strings of successes?”

Ray also said Monday he has not spoken with wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson about returning to the basketball team for spring semester, as in 2014. He is not expecting to have the sophomore’s services this year either. “My plan for him is to be a first-round NFL draft pick, I don’t know what his plan is!”

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