SEC Results Lead To Further Lineup Shuffles

Rick Ray agrees, he would truly prefer a consistent starting lineup and substitution rotation. And for a couple of days the Bulldog coach thought he had one. Two SEC games later? “We have to tinker some more.”

How, and who with? That might be the larger and longer-term question. Even Ray would have to admit there are not a lot of untested tools left to try with this Mississippi State roster. Regardless, there is another game to play, so Ray is looking for another lineup to play with when the Bulldogs visit Texas A&M. Tuesday’s game time is 8:00 for the SEC Network.

Mississippi State is 7-8 and 0-2 after consecutive losses to open league play. Such a SEC start is frustrating enough. What gets to third-year coach Ray and club is defeats by Tennessee and at Florida came after easily the best effort of the season. When State beat Florida State on January 2, Ray thought he’d found that elusive combination.

Thus, “I know it’s not anything scientific but why change the lineup?” As it turns out, he must and will because “These past two games it hasn’t worked. So that warrants a change.”

Obviously Mississippi State must change something or –things if the record is to change for any better results. Coming off one good win the Bulldogs lost 61-47 to Tennessee, then were simply whipped by the Gators 72-47. And Saturday’s showing wasn’t even as competitive as that wide margin. Ray can at least point to missed free throws, 20 of them, as key to not taking advantage of opportunity against the Volunteers.

In that case the Dogs did get part of the gameplan right by attacking and drawing fouls. At Florida…nothing was executed or achieved. “They had 19 points off our turnovers in the first half,” Ray noted. So in one sense the common thread was self-destruction by State.

But that just touches the surface of the real issue with this team. It can be explained all sorts of ways but comes down to fundamental fact: State doesn’t score. Perhaps, cannot score.

Certainly the tip-off team Ray rewarded after the Florida State win is not putting up SEC points. The leading scorer in this latest lineup is forward Travis Daniels at 7.0 points per game. Yes, the top point producer of the starters nets just over two buckets in a contest. The others provide in-order 6.5, 4.5, 3.5, and 1.3 points.

So credit Ray for what may be the under-statement of the year. Because Monday he said “Right now we probably have too many guys in the starting lineup that don’t give us a chance to have success on the offensive end.”

At the same time Ray is not eager to adjust because in his eyes this is also the best defensive quintet to begin a game with. And as he said Monday, “We’ve got to continue to defend and rebound to give ourselves a chance to win.” It would appear then the coach has a Dog dilemma with no obvious answer: his best defensive group struggles to score, and the best or at least better offensive lineup allows points while scoring them.

There is some statistical foundation to Ray’s choices. Through 15 games Mississippi State ranks 27th-best in NCAA scoring defense. This despite that chosen team giving up 12-straight to Tennessee to open that game; the Dogs did settle down to hold the Vols scoreless for a longer stretch.

The glaring problem is this. The offense is literally at the other end of the NCAA spectrum, 323rd out of 351 teams in scoring at 59.6 points. And obviously they’ve averaged a consistent 47 points in two league losses. Bringing it into local perspective, State’s highest-scoring player, guard Fred Thomas, is just 32nd in the SEC at 10.3 ppg. That’s one slot ahead of forward Roquez Johnson, also 10.3; with center Gavin Ware right behind at 10.2.

None of those started the last two games. Whether Ray puts them back in the lineup won’t be decided until after a Monday evening practice, at College Station. Ray doesn’t like having the final real practice at road venues but a late Saturday return and Monday class scheduling meant adjusting.

It is worth suggesting that in a couple of cases, particularly junior post Ware, subbing has made for better production than starting. Ware actually lost his place with a December 20 ankle sprain. Coming off the bench he scored 10 and 12 points against FSU and Tennessee with 8-of-12 shooting, and his rebounding also improved too.

But Ray might not have the luxury of rotating his veteran center. “We don’t have an inside presence with our starting lineup,” he admitted. Center Fallou Ndoye has become an offensive void, with no points and just three shots in 24 SEC minutes. Freshman forward Oliver Black has a point, a free throw, in 29 minutes.

“We have to insert a lineup that gives up the best chance to get a good start,” Ray said today. Shooting stats say Johnson (56.4%) and Ware (52.1%) offer the best chances to score early inside…if teammates get the ball downcourt safely in the first place, then deliver it to the big men at the right time. But even this is problematic, because opponents know to stay close to the big Dogs and dare the rest to shoot over everything.

This, State just is not capable of unless it is the rare evening Thomas, Daniel, guard IJ Ready or somebody else is ‘on’ their outside game. The Florida loss stung all the more because with it already out of reach Thomas threw in consecutive treys, something he has not been able to do when games hung in the balance.

Or anyone else much for that matter. Since a 5-0 start to the season, State is 35-of-132 (27%) at the arc. The three-pointer just cannot be a serious part of Ray’s game-planning, and opponents know it. There could be the rare matchup where some Dogs get hot outside. Otherwise State has to script for shorter shots and try to take advantage of good athletes who are poor shooters.

The best of that bunch is junior guard Craig Sword, able to slash and attack and just create things in traffic. Last year’s leading scorer is still slowly coming back from preseason back surgery, even more slowly than expected. Ray could always rely on Sword’s explosive moves the first two seasons. Not now.

“When he doesn’t have that it hinders his game because he’s not a skilled guy,” Ray said. “He’s still a shell of himself athletically.”

And yet Sword has to play. Everybody has to play, save freshman guard Maurice Dunlap who now has a hamstring issue after being set back with a hand injury. Despite enough numbers on the roster for the first time in his tenure, Ray current club is not showing sufficient skills to do what counts most in minds and on the board. They aren’t scoring.

“We’ve got to find a way,” said Ray. “Because we’re still doing a great job on the defensive end. But we’ve got to find a way to get a balance of scoring and defense. And we’ve got to find a lineup we can change some things with.”

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