Mississippi State (11-11, 4-5) begins that second-SEC-half on the road Saturday, with a 3:00 tipoff at Arkansas. The game is for SEC Network broadcast.
The Bulldogs are coming off consecutive victories, most recently Tuesday at Tennessee, for the fourth SEC success. This equals the four-league-win results of Ray’s debut season and surpasses last year’s three wins. While far from where the coach wants his program to be, it is an encouraging proof of improvement.
In fact, at the pace Mississippi State is playing now it is increasingly likely the third Ray team ought win as many or more league games as the prior years combined. Though the upcoming nine SEC games have real challenges, the Dogs will also be seeing a series of league opponents who trail State in the current standings. And, there are five home games.
Of course recently State is playing pretty good ball on the road, too. Winning at Auburn snapped a multi-year losing streak of away games at last. The Tennessee trip was maybe more important for this team though. The Volunteers had beaten the Bulldogs in Humphrey Coliseum a month earlier, so to whip Tennessee on their own court more decisively than the final margin showed was a real statement.
In fact, in all four of their SEC road games this year State has held a halftime lead. Sealing the second-half deal was another matter at Texas A&M and Ole Miss. But even those close losses gave the club a confidence boost that is paying off.
“Anybody who has seen this team from the beginning can see we’re playing our best basketball,” Ray said.
Why so and why now? For one thing…no, make that two. Every week, Mississippi State gets better as I.J. Ready and Craig Sword get stronger. Their long, often frustrating recovery from pre-season operations has been mentioned so often that now it’s almost forgotten. But as Ray said, “It’s fair to say we’re the only team in the nation to have our starting backcourt out with back surgery.”
Point guard Ready recovered faster and has become the clear key to team success. Since not scoring in the SEC opener, he has put up 99 points in the other eight tests (12.4) on 46% shooting. Ready has been even more accurate at crunch time, hitting half his shots in the final minutes.
Ray had to work on his sophomore quarterback to take more upon himself and not settle for dribbling and distributing. “He told me get aggressive and score,” Ready said. “I’ve just tried to be more aggressive and keep being aggressive.”
No Dog is more aggressive though than Sword. The lingering recovery hit him harder though because Sword’s game is based on forcing the action. Now here he is looking just about full-strength, though Ray cautions that Sword still has rough stretches and doesn’t always bounce-back from playing easily.
“Until his back clears up, and I don’t know if that will be this season, he will always be a game-time decision,” Ray said. The coach knows what he wants to decide: in the last five games Sword has averaged 18 points. In just the last three he’s made 21-of-28 shots. And suddenly Sword has turned into a go-to gunner at the three-point line. Consistency from long-range would be an immeasurable boost to game planning. Defenses would have to choose between coming out on Sword and giving up driving room, or watching him take open jumpers.
It may just be a hot streak, but as long as swingman Fred Thomas is throwing in jumpers he will have the green light, too. Thomas has hit five of seven trey-tries in the last two wins. Yet he’s not settled for jumpers. Thomas is getting to the stripe regularly and made 13 of 14 chances there in the same success stretch.
With these perimeter Dogs getting it done, less load has fallen on the post players to score. Center Gavin Ware still gets his 10.4 points but is a larger force on the glass, an area where this is a greatly-improved team as a whole. Forward Roquez Johnson has shown he can put up points as needed but is more efficient as a complementary force on the baseline. It’s worth noting that State has won games lately despite forward Travis Daniels almost vanishing from the offense, with two scoreless games and 18 total points the last five times out.
What matters more than stats though is stabilizing the squad. With Ready and Sword mostly-back, State has been able to use the same lineup for six-straight games now. In-turn, a real rotation has developed at last for Ray. At the point senior Trivante Bloodman can spell Ready as needed, though obviously the coach wants his more-aggressive starter out there as many minutes as possible.
Closer to the goal the surprise has been emergence of freshman Oliver Black as second center. Or at times a complementary force to Ware on the baseline. Black has played 56 minutes the last three games, for a sample; compared to 16 minutes for Fallou Ndoye who sees more spot-duty these days.
State might end up shuttling players in and out more than usual Saturday, though. Arkansas (17-5, 6-3) is a tempo team at all times and more so on their home floor. The SEC’s highest-scoring offense at 80.2 per game, these Razorbacks pull the trigger quickly on nearly 19 trey-tries a game but would rather turn teams over and run out for layups.
Guard Rashad Madden is netting almost five assists each game, largely because he gets the ball to league-leading scorer Bobby Portis (17.7ppg). But forward Portis isn’t just a scorer, he hits the glass hard and well for 8.7 rebounds.
While the fearsome reputation of the 1990s is literally history now, Walton Arena is still no easy venue to visit. State last won there in 2011. Under the SEC’s revised scheduling system these programs only met once last season, in the Hump with Arkansas taking a tight 73-69 final.
Though most of the names are the same, this is a very different Bulldog team. Whatever happens on this trip it is also turning into a team changing some minds about what 2015 can bring.