The Bulldogs (7-9, 0-3 SEC) are back in Humphrey Coliseum to host Vanderbilt (11-5, 1-2). Game time is 3:00 for FSN telecast.
The schedule maker did Mississippi State few favors in the opening stretch. After a Saturday evening game in Gainesville, the Dogs had to hurry out to College Station and play Tuesday. To their credit, Ray’s team responded with the best SEC effort so far in a loss at Texas A&M, with a genuine chance at snapping a multi-season road defeat streak in the final minute.
The positive now is an extra day to prepare for Vanderbilt. And, for Ray to study whether he has the best of his possible lineups to begin games with. By ‘best’ the coach means a club able to play reliable defense in the early minutes to keep games under some sort of control.
But, as the other two SEC games made too clear, a quintet that can score. Slow starts against Tennessee and Florida stressed the necessity of being able to put at least enough points up early to balance the defensive effort. The latest revision looked like a move in a better direction, with the main change re-inserting junior Gavin Ware at center after a seven-game absence from the tipoff team.
Whether it was the lineup, the matchup, or probably both, the Bulldogs led at halftime Tuesday and were playing to win at the end in a 74-70 final. Those 70 points were a major turnaround too after scoring just 47 points in both preceding losses. Of course eight SEC teams average 70 or more points nightly, but at this point State will take any sign of progress on offense.
Besides, Ware only scored three points in his eight minutes, all at the foul line. The former starting center, Fallou Ndoye, saw even less action. Rookie Oliver Black came off the bench for 27 minutes and while the kid struggles with skills his energy fit the matchup better than the other posts.
The real spark came from point guard I.J. Ready with 18 points; and forward Travis Daniels throwing in a surprising four treys, in eight tries, for 14 points. Surprising, because State has the fewest three-pointers in the conference. Struggling shooter Fred Thomas found the College Station court to his liking too with four treys as well.
Only a few more games and a lot more makes will show if this was a temporary Bulldog blip, or if Ray can begin counting on outside scoring. Goodness knows it would be a huge boost to, well, everything. Even after putting up 70 this week State is still last in SEC (all season) scoring by a wide margin. They are 12th in shooting. This is when they can get off a shot, as the assist/turnover rate is as disruptive as it is disturbing. The Dogs have lost the ball 102 more times than they’ve made a scoring pass.
Still Ready remains the quarterback, especially as guard Craig Sword continues to struggle with an extended comeback from pre-season back issues. Physically he should be close enough to full-speed by now. And while Ray allows for ‘game conditioning’ with the junior, the body is not the main problem. Sword clearly isn’t as certain what he can do and when as the first two seasons, where his sheer athleticism offset everything.
Yet, if and when Sword becomes his former self, the Bulldogs become a more athletic outfit on both ends of the court. Sword’s explosiveness on offense or defense just makes everyone else better around him. Add in the hope that a few Dogs have suddenly found their outsides shooting touch, and Ray’s optimistic words of the last two weeks could make much more sense.
The Commodores have their own sense of urgency after consecutive league losses. But compared to State they have offensive reasons for confidence. They are 6th in SEC scoring but best in overall shooting as well as two-point accuracy. That is an interesting shift in emphasis for a program traditionally build on three-pointing.
Vanderbilt will take, and make, the trey; but inside efficiency has been surprisingly strong. Postman Damian Jones is averaging 15.7 points on 54% shooting, while forward James Slakam makes 68% of his attempts for nearly ten points-per. The frontcourt’s strength shows up in impressive defensive rebounding too. Meanwhile Guard Riley LaChance draws defensive attention with his 13.4 points and outside accuracy.
The other aspect for Mississippi State is how different their early-schedule matchups have been. Tennessee was a full-time zone team which attacked the goal on offense. Florida’s precise ball movement and selective shooting caught the Dogs out of step. Texas A&M was a closer comparison, athletes making plays and keeping the tempo up, which State was almost able to match. Now it is a Commodore club that might have a shorter roster than most squads but will put a skilled basketball player at every spot.
Ray can’t do anything about the opposing styles. He can continue shuffling his deck for a lineup which the coach hopes work best from tipoff-to-horn. State is also looking for improvement in the seats Saturday. Actual attendance, as opposed to the announced paid crowd, has been lacking to say the least. But with the first home game since the spring semester began the Bulldogs can hope some fellow students show up for an afternoon contest.