The Mississippi State coach was speaking directly to having enough able bodies here in year-three to compete. The general idea seems equally accurate, though. After knocking off Louisiana State, these Bulldogs have matched last year’s SEC victory total already, and look capable of more conference conquests in the remaining ten tests.
“Our guys are starting to figure out who they are and their roles on this team,” Ray said. “And we’re playing our best basketball now because we’ve got everybody on the same page.”
The schedule’s page has turned to February now, and starts with a trip to Tennessee. The Tuesday game time is 6:00ct for the SEC Network.
Road games haven’t been kind to Ray’s program on the whole, but maybe here too a page has turned. The Bulldogs snapped a 22-game (16 SEC) losing streak away from home two weeks ago with a win at Auburn. Then for about 35 minutes last week Mississippi State was poised to upset host Ole Miss.
Ray hopes these recent trips have his team in a positive frame of mind going back on the SEC road. Certainly beating LSU on the home floor Saturday was another boost to Bulldog confidence after consecutive setbacks.
“We’re coming off a great win here. I thought our guys had really played well but just hadn’t been rewarded. So it was beneficial to get rewarded with a win.”
State stands 10-11 now and 3-5 SEC. The Volunteers are 13-7, 5-3 SEC, and coming off a home win over Auburn. That game capped a hectic week in Knoxville with former coach Bruce Pearl returning to town, on top of growing NCAA issues current UT Coach Donnie Tyndall left behind at Southern Mississippi.
Tyndall’s Vol veterans are doing a good job ignoring distractions. Senior guard Josh Richardson sets the pace with 15.6 points and hands out nearly four assists as well. Some of those come by getting the ball to guard Kevin Punter in position to make 42% of his three-point tries. The club is hitting on 36% of treys in league play.
This isn’t a run-and-gun offense though. In fact Tennessee thrives on defense, allowing just 41% shooting in SEC play so far; then getting to the glass hard. Junior forward Armani Moore and Derek Reese come away with seven rebounds each.
Tuesday is a rematch of both teams’ SEC opener, won 61-47 by the Vols in Humphrey Coliseum. Nether side shot well at all, so Tennessee’s rebounding prowess (44 to 28) was decisive. Though, the Bulldogs had every chance to off-set things with unguarded shots. At the free throw line, specifically, where they went 44 times. But only 24 were made, leaving more than enough misses to change the outcome.
Yes, Ray said, better three-throwing is required of the rematch. Of much more concern to him? “It’s the turnovers to start the game.” As in Bulldog mistakes the first time around and the first minutes when Tennessee’s full-court pressing and full-time zone defense gave State fits.
The Vols were up 12-0 before the home team scored, and even if State also went on a 12-0 tear they were playing catch-up most of the afternoon. Missing all the one-pointers only aggravated things.
”Tennessee really presents a lot of problems with the way they play,” Ray said. “The 2-2-1 press and matchup zone is really unique in this league.” The optimistic angle though is that having seen it first-hand a month ago, the Bulldogs ought be better prepared for second exposure. As the coach said too, State’s players are watching video of what they did wrong in the loss…and noticing what was done right.
”The best thing that prepares you is you’ve already played them. Seeing themselves making those mistakes, and knowing what to do to fix those mistakes.”
It doesn’t count as ‘mistake’ in the first meeting, but what Tennessee saw was a State squad go 1-of-9 at the arc. The Vols might need to pay attention to more recent results though. While by no means a hot-shooting perimeter offense, the Bulldogs have improved their long-range game. In the last four games, two wins and two close losses, State is 24-of-72 from the arc. Not great, but clearly better.
Assists are also up, and from the same source as the improved outside shooting. Point guard IJ Ready has emerged as key to the offense in all phases, whether popping threes or penetrating for shorter shots and quick passes.
Ray has been Ready’s chief cheerleader all along. While the sophomore was first sidelined and then slowed in return by pre-season back surgery the coach always predicted Ready would be key to success. This is being proven on the stat sheet and scoreboard.
“Now he’s starting to get in game shape, and you see the dividends,” Ray said. With more to come, too, if Ready follows orders and becomes even more aggressive with the ball. “He wants to be the quintessential point guard and have a high assist/turnover ratio. We need him to be more daring, to make plays for us off ball screens.”
Since going scoreless in the SEC opener, with Tennessee of course, Ready has averaged 13 points in seven league games with 13 total treys made. Balancing this, center Gavin Ware has asserted himself inside much better. Ware has 24 points the last two games on 9-of-16 shooting, gotten to the free throw line regular, and continued to hit the glass efficiently.
Ready isn’t the only Bulldog guard who went down with pre-season back surgery. He just recovered faster than Craig Sword, lots faster. But now the junior is looking like his former healthy self. Sword scored 27 points at Oxford last week. He came back to take half as many shots against LSU and scored about the same proportion points, 14, with equally efficient shot selection.
Ray very nearly did not have Sword at all Saturday, as the back remains a day-to-day concern. As the team boarded the bus for their Monday flight, Sword was supposed to be available again.
The other wild card is as always big guard Fred Thomas. Or “enigma” as Ray called him, after Thomas torched LSU for 18 points when three evenings earlier Ole Miss held him scoreless. But when both Sword and Thomas are on their game(s), which doesn’t necessarily mean scoring points, the Bulldog team is that much more capable of making plays.
Their athleticism is maybe more necessary than ever this time, to break the Vol press first and then break through a committed zone scheme which will dare the Dogs to settle for outside stuff. Nor has any current player had any success in Thompson-Boling Arena. State last won at Tennessee in 2011, and has lost the four trips since.
There’s one other ‘streak’ of sorts to worry about. February has been a brutal month in Ray’s first two years. The last Bulldog win in this month at all was in 2012, at South Carolina; with sixteen losses since.
But then the coach is trying to put the previous two Februarys and for that matter seasons entirely out of mind.”