It’s been a while since Mississippi State walked out of Smith Coliseum feeling successful. The Rebels have a three-year home streak going, including both of Ray’s previous visits. Since Bulldog teams have won their last five home games, again twice with Ray in charge, it’s easy to say this rivalry is playing out as it mostly-should.
But same-old doesn’t help Bulldog basketball take Ray’s next step. What would, now, is stealing one on the arch-rival’s floor for a definite change of fortune.
“So we’ve got to make sure at some point we go up and have success at their place,” Ray said.
The Bulldog coach believes time might just be right, too. True, Mississippi State (9-10, 2-4 SEC) is coming off a frustrating home loss to Georgia. But this was after a pair of tight SEC wins, one of them at Auburn to end a 22-game drought on opponents’ courts. The third-year coach thus sees a team trending in generally right directions.
“I think we’re playing probably the best we have our whole season, if you look at our last four games.”
The coach is correct there. Since being held to 47 points in losses to Tennessee and at Florida, the Bulldogs have averaged 68 points in the four game. The shooting, 38%, in this same stretch is nothing to brag about…until compared to the even worse accuracy of December and early SEC play. So this does count as progress.
The reason, Ray sees, is simple enough. “Our team is doing a better job taking care of the basketball.” That’s hard to prove statistically; State still loses the handle far too often win or lose. Still some turnovers are the price of Bulldog style, whether pushing the ball upcourt or attacking set defenses aggressively.
What is improving in this area is taking a few more pre-drive passes, Ray said. “”We’re sharing the basketball. What happens is we get frustrated with how teams are playing us, packing it in, and we put our heads down and drive into trouble. I think we’ve been a lot more patient understanding, move the basketball, move the defense, then those opportunities to drive open up.”
Opponents pack it in for the obvious reason that the Bulldogs are just not a consistent threat to hit outside shots. Or, not up to now. While the perimeter shooting is still nothing to shout about, a few Dogs are suddenly finding the long-range and popping three-pointers. Guards I.J. Ready and Fred Thomas have burned defenses in recent weeks, and forward Travis Daniels is an occasional threat as well.
Again this is not the first offensive option. But every made-trey forces the other team to extend the defense a little more than they intend. In turn, center Gavin Ware and forward Roquez Johnson have a little more room to operate. Johnson is coming off a career game with 25 points against Georgia; while Ware powered for 16 at Auburn.
Something about this pair is worth noting, too. Neither has scored double-digits in the same SEC game. Should State find a way to get both going on the same night, odds of success radically improve. A key to that though is getting junior Ware to attack the offensive goal with the same purpose he shows on the glass. Ware has come away with 42 rebounds in just the last three games, but taken only 21 shots.
Point guard Ready has stepped to the offensive forefront instead, averaging 13.8 points the last five games since taking only one shot against Tennessee. This cuts down on his assists count of course, but as the first and right now best offensive option throwing the ball at the goal rather than a teammate seems wisest.
But Ray knows the offense can’t be inverted to outside-first over the long haul. State’s key the rest of this season is getting guard Craig Sword up to full game speed. The preseason back surgery has meant a very long comeback, especially with Sword’s all-out athletic approach. Now he is coming off 10- and 13-point games, and for a half he had his way with Georgia before simple exhaustion took the edge off.
Yet each night Sword gets a little stronger, lasts a little longer. “He’s continuing to get better,” Ray said. “I don’t think he’s really back yet, if he is back he finishes at the rim the opportunities he had against Georgia. When he finishes at the basket, he’s truly back.”
While the MSU offense is gradually figuring itself out, the defense has become problematic. In this same four-game stretch opponents have shot 47% and not turned the ball over as often as State does. Ray said the coaching staff has gone through the latest games for tendencies.
Though, from the Georgia game, the head coach already knew the issue. Missed defensive assignments in the preferred scheme.
“We’re giving up more in our zone than in man. But why, it’s because our guys are not doing their assignments in zone.” Ray figures part of this is zones inevitably tempt players to ‘rest’ during plays. “We’re so much more active in man defense, and we’ve got to rectify that.”
But, Ray added, it is not as simple as going all-man approach now. State must zone some opponents more than others, and zone part of all games at points. The trick now is figuring when, who with, and how. Ray said for this reason practices have shifted emphasis to testing defensive sets and judging how assignments are handled.
“If we can’t get it right we’ll play more man. If we can get them right we’ll continue to play as much zone as we have.”
The Dogs will have to mix and match defenses Wednesday. Ole Miss (12-7, 3-3) is a 44% shooting squad overall but also hits over 35% of trey tries. That potential balance means State has to be ready to work zone or man interchangeably. And the Rebels has good size inside, with strong rebounding and shot-blocking stats that show what sort of challenge is ahead for Ware, Johnson, and alternate Oliver Black.
Besides, the home team is has had a good recent run of their own. They shredded Arkansas 96-82 at Fayetteville, one of the SEC’s real surprise showings of the season, and after a competitive loss at Georgia came home to outlast Florida. Even before this stretch they gave LSU, at the time a hot squad, all it could handle in a four-point final.
So State is visiting a squad playing with confidence and for post-season ambitions. The Bulldogs can only fantasize about tournament time for now. But should they score an upset on the road, there it as least some hope in that aspect. More meaningful is what it would do for perception of this program.
“That’s a game that is important to us, our fan base, the MSU community,” Ray agreed. Though, he said, “What we can’t lose sight of is continue to get better, not get wrapped-up in emotions that we have to continue to get better.”