Mississippi State is back on the home court hosting Alabama with an 8:05 tipoff for the SEC Network. The Bulldogs are coming off consecutive road trips with mixed results, which has them 11-12 overall and 4-6 SEC going into Tuesday. The Crimson Tide (14-9) is also 4-6, and also coming off a road loss after their trip to LSU.
It isn’t being in the late slot that creates questions for Coach Rick Ray. It is playing so early in the new week, after a weekend away from home. Not only do the Bulldogs have to recover quickly from their road trip. They must shake off effects of a rout at Arkansas.
So seen from that angle, maybe getting back on the court so soon isn’t a bad deal? ““I would think so,” Ray said. “You want to get a sour taste out of your month and get ready to play as soon as possible.”
Mississippi State certainly returned from the 61-41 setback feeling soured. “It’s like we took a big step backwards,” forward Roquez Johnson said. “Like we fell in a hole.” Johnson’s response actually said as much about the weeks leading up to that trip as the loss itself.
Because, after a 0-2 start to SEC season, the Bulldogs had played seven competitive and even entertaining games regardless of outcome. Four were wins, which pushed State to .500 overall and a victory of breaking-even in league play. Even the losses were good performances when Ray’s team pushed peers Ole Miss and Georgia to the final minute.
That wasn’t the case at Arkansas for many minutes at all. The Bulldogs had only nine points at halftime, a shot clock era low for the program; and finished with a season-low 41. Center Gavin Ware did his best to carry the club with half of the 14 basket scored. The problem was seven teammates had only one bucket apiece. And none were made from the three-point arc where State was 0-of-10.
”I think that’s the worst we’ve played all year,” Johnson said. “But we’re looking past that game now.”
Guard Fred Thomas agreed his team didn’t give itself a chance to compete at Arkansas. But, “I think we’re going to get over that. We’ll see them again. We just have to get ready for Alabama.”
At the same time Ray is not pushing his preparations. Much as the Bulldogs need to get back A) on the court and B) to playing well and winning, he has to be careful. This deep into a schedule, and with some players gimpy or still recovering from pre-season surgeries, the coach must balance practice with rest lest more players break down.
Ray reported that forward Travis Daniels’s status for today was uncertain. Daniels has had a shot for his strained hip which “seemed to help him” said Ray today. “It may take a few days to be 100% but he’s got to be better than he was.” Guard Craig Sword, a key in the SEC-season surge, keeps putting in around 30 minutes each game…but has to be watched closely afterwards.
“It’s just a game to game, hour to hour, day to day situation with that back,” Ray said.
So yesterday after training room visits Ray had the club watch tape—“some things we did wrong against Arkansas offensively”—and do a walk-through sort of session. Monday had a real practice again but with only a single hour of really hard-paced work.
”We’re giving ourselves a chance to be fully-prepared by shortening some things,” Ray said.
Scouting Alabama is an interesting proposition though. For one thing, thanks to the current SEC scheduling scheme, the league’s next-door neighbors only played once last year (a 80-61 Tide win in Tuscaloosa) and again once this season. So there isn’t the usual familiarity Bulldogs and Bama have always shared.
And for that matter the Alabama lineup is in flux these days. Loss of guard Ricky Tarrant three games ago was a blow to the Crimson Tide offense. Guard Retin Obasohan and forward Shannon Hale have been tried, though Obasohan has missed time with his own injury as well.
Hale has been productive around the goal at 8.1 points, flanked with 6-10 Jimmie Taylor (4.5ppg, 4.4rpg). Alabama can go to the bench for all-around forward Riley Norris, who is playing better now than his 4.7/3.7 averages show with a strong game at LSU.
Alabama’s scoring strength is still in the backcourt. Rodney Cooper (10.3) hits 49% of shots and 42% of trey-tries. And that’s still second-fiddle to all-conference guard Levi Randolph, with his 14.9 points and 35 minutes. It’s not just the points which keep Randolph on the court long as possible.
“He’s a big, strong wing,” Ray said. “He can shoot it, he can pass it, he can handle it. I just like the way he carries himself. He’s got all that skill level and an athlete’s body too.”
State isn’t lacking athletes of course. As Sword continues his extended comeback his presence grows, setting aside a five-point, 1-of-6 shooting and five turnover day against Arkansas’ full-time pressure. Before that Sword had scored 90 points in five games, shot a great overall average and even begun hitting from the arc.
Ironically, Ray says now all the pre- and early-season time Sword was forced to stay seated shooting or do it standing still improved the junior’s aim. Or arc, more specifically. Always a ‘flat’ shooter relying on his leaping gifts, Sword has had to become a truer jump-shooter. In a three-game (two wins) stretch he was 10-of-14 at the arc; from a fellow who his entire previous two seasons made just 25 treys. Combined.
Making a few long shots has done wonders for Sword’s entire game, besides being able to play 30 or more minutes without feeling the old back pains of course. “Now he feels more confident he can go make some of those athletic plays he did in the past,” Ray said.
No Dog hit any longballs at Fayetteville, obviously. But some of those shots were essentially from frustration about running the larger offense anyway. Alabama isn’t the same sort of defense. So Mississippi State expects to get back to basics, working the ball to Ware and Johnson around the goal again while Sword and Thomas look for driving lanes.
Ray certainly hopes Saturday was a blip on I.J. Ready’s season-screen, attributable to the emotions of playing in his home state. Having practically carried the club for four weeks, the Little Rock native struggled mightly for a marked change.
Still Ready will have to stay aggressive on offense, while drawing a taller assignment as usual on defense. Not to mention that Alabama’s constant screens mean Ready will be bouncing off bodies all evening. So everyone has to stay sharp picking up Randolph and Cooper, then keep doing something these Dogs do well: rebound the misses and kick it into transition offense.
The second half of their SEC schedule didn’t begin as hoped, but the Bulldogs knew they’d drawn a tough start at Arkansas. Now they intend to make use of the home court against a league equal; one of the type teams Mississippi State has begun beating here in year-three for Ray.
”We just have to put (Arkansas) behind and get ready for a good Alabama team,” Ray said. “I just told our guys we’ve got to be mentally and physically ready to go compete and beat Alabama.”