Mississippi State (8-9, 1-3 SEC) leaves home for a Wednesday date at Auburn (10-7, 2-2). This game has again drawn the late TV slot, yet the 8:00 tipoff should be worth watching. Because at some point an extended road-game drought must end.
‘Extended’ meaning 19 losses at hostile SEC venues, with the last success coming January 12, 2013 at Georgia. That was also the last time Bulldog basketball won a true ‘away’ game on the host’s own court of any sort. Counting non-conference visits the string stretches to 22 losses.
“Coming off the Vanderbilt win, a road win would mean a lot to us,” center Gavin Ware said. “It would show people how hard we work and how it carries over to the game.”
The Bulldogs did taste some belated reward for this winter’s work in a 57-54 victory over visiting Vanderbilt. The win finally ended a 16-loss streak in SEC play going back to last January…though Ray said he wasn’t considering the multi-season aspect at the time. Then he mentioned winning in the SEC Tournament.
“You start splitting hairs, regular-season and all that. I was more worried about getting that first win and breaking that SEC losing streak.”
Now here’s opportunity to break another, and stopping the skid this week appears possible. Though, going into the season it would have seemed closer to probable. The arrival of former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl has revitalized a program stalled for many seasons. If not a contender by any means, the Tigers are able to do some damage to the top-half of the league and are winning their share against the rest.
“A team that’s playing with a lot of energy and enthusiasm,” Ray said. “They’ve got it going there and we have to make sure we don’t get caught up in the moment of what is going on, we have to concentrate on ourselves and executing and making simple plays.”
Auburn players are also working their way to the top of SEC stat sheets. Guard K.T. Harrell is second in scoring this week at 16.9 points, while forward Cinmeon Bowers leads the whole league at 11.2 rebounds. As does guard K.C. Ross-Miller with his 2.2 steals.
“They’ve got a great inside-out presence, which is what you want in college basketball,” Ray said.
And the Tigers do get after the ball on defense with their aggressive style setting up the offense. On that end Auburn is not efficient by any means, shooting a SEC-last 41% (to be fair State and Missouri also are also under 42%). But they can counter quality with quantity, heaving up lots of three-pointers and hitting just enough of them.
Both teams get to the foul stripe early and often and while neither shoot accurately there the one-pointers do add up eventually. And, put opponents back on their bench. After a few short seasons both have rosters to handle attrition.
What Ray is doing with his, now, has been interesting in SEC season. The latest lineup shuffle has produced what looks like the best working combination for tip-off to-date, though Ray still thinks more of the whole-game picture than just opening minutes.
Putting Ware back at starting center hasn’t produced offense, even though that was Ray’s goal. “It’s more about us having a threat in the post to score,” the coach said. There has been more threat than points with just three and seven points in his two starts. Yet Ware does provide a steady presence to get games going defensively, and his 13 rebounds against Vanderbilt may have been decisive.
It also allows true freshman Oliver Black to watch and wait his turn, and go all-out in relief. The youngest post Dog hits the glass hard, is holding his own on defense now, and even scoring a few surprising points.
“What Oliver does, we had him and Fallou (Ndoye) together to begin the game. Both are sound defensively but those guys at this point we weren’t prepared to throw the ball to them. It’s more about the evolution of those guys as offensive posts.”
“It doesn’t really affect me, starting or coming off the bench,” Ware said. “It’s just to help my team get off to a good start, that’s what my coach feels. If he likes it, I love it!”
Inside offense remains the must. State still brings up the SEC-tail in treys made, as well as tried. But there has been some unexpected arc-improvement lately with 18 makes in three games. And while only three came in the win, IJ Ready’s three-ball put his team ahead in the final minute.
Sophomore point guard Ready has emerged as State’s better offensive option lately, with 39 points over three SEC games to go with 11 assists. His size, or lack thereof, might limit some avenues of attack but Ready has dared go close to the goal more and is getting shots. Or fouls, and making his free chances.
“He’s a point guard trying to do the right things,” said Ray. “And he’s a guy that is a threat to make a perimeter shot, and he’s showing some leadership skills.” Ready has also shown turnover tendencies which don’t bode as well for this matchup, but being aggressive outside is what this team needs.
That, or having guard Fred Thomas or forward Travis Daniels---or better, both—turn in one of their unpredictable ‘hot’ games at the perimeter. They aren’t consistent outside at all, yet at the same time are capable of throwing in threes if taken lightly so as to keep the other club guessing.
The wild cards of course are still forward Roquez Johnson and guard Craig Sword. Neither are typical offensive players by any means. Johnson thrives on the broken-down plays or second-chance situations, often of his own misses in fact, but makes 53% of shots somehow for ten points a game. Sword has been slow coming back from pre-season back surgery and isn’t close to his old self.
Yet against a flat-footed Commodore defense his aggressiveness created cracks for drives and/or fouls. Auburn won’t present the same sorts of opportunities. But Sword’s athletic talents might matter even more breaking pressure and countering Tiger speed each direction.
With Pearl’s fresh presence the Auburn atmosphere is entirely different. Not that the Dogs haven’t experienced energetic venues before, of course, but this was one road trip that rarely presented distractions. No longer.
Still, said Ray, “If you’re worried about the fans you’re worrying about the wrong things. We’ve got to worry about our scouting report, and execution.”
“The key to me is having success taking care of the ball in the first half, against a team that will pressure and deny and try to speed you up.”