"Undoubtedly The Best Team In The Country"

Rick Ray welcomed this three-game home stand, the only extended SEC stretch in Humphrey Coliseum of the season. “The unfortunate part is against the three best teams in the SEC,” Ray said ruefully. “And undoubtedly against the best team in the country.”

That’s the team which completes the home-court trifecta. Mississippi State (12-15, 5-9 SEC) is hosting runaway #1 and unbeaten Kentucky (27-0, 14-0) this Wednesday. Game time is 6:00 for SEC Network telecast, with radio on Sirius/XM 91 as well.

Do give the Bulldogs credit for saying, as Craig Sword did, about as right a thing as they can under the obvious circumstances. “We just have to treat it like any other team coming in here. Just the next game.”

Beyond the obvious fact this isn’t just another opponent coming to the Hump, junior guard Sword is correct on one point. It is the next game for a Mississippi State team trying to continue its gradual progress of Ray’s third SEC season. The Bulldogs already have the most league wins of Ray’s tenure. Whatever happens, and it’s unlikely anyone offers real chance for success Wednesday, there are other more winnable matchups ahead.

The key though is getting over further recent frustrations. And frustrating is the best description of losses to Ole Miss (71-65) and Arkansas (65-61). Those setbacks, on the home court, extended one of this season’s trends.

“We’ve had six games in SEC play we’ve lost by six points or less,” Ray said. The coach could amplify that fact as well by pointing out that the five Bulldog wins have been by a total of 24 points. Meaning, this team has proven able to win close games. Or, lose them.

What Ray is not emphasizing right now is another fact: State wasn’t full-strength the last week. During the Ole Miss game two starters, point guard I.J. Ready and forward Roquez Johnson, either missed key minutes or were sidelined entirely by injuries. Had either been unscathed, it’s an even bet the Bulldogs would have split the season rivalry.

Johnson was back for Arkansas. Ready wasn’t, and his absence showed. A turnover-prone team fell apart in the final minute to lose both the handle and the game. As of Monday, Ray could not say if Ready would be, well, ready by Wednesday. It probably doesn’t matter either way for this game, but a healthy point guard is vital for the Saturday trip to South Carolina.

To be sure, Mississippi State’s coach nor players are conceding Wednesday. They are frank about the challenge. Kentucky might not have blown out every opponent this season, but they don’t have to. The Wildcats can afford to coast most nights in this conference because if a play is needed there is somebody to make it. Somebodies, rather.

It’s a pursuit of perfection that even in the watered-down college game of today remains impressive regardless of era. “To be undefeated is really something hard to do,” Ray said. “Because some point in time you’re going to have a letdown or go against a team that’s hot. What (John Calipari) has done is mold that depth into being more concerned about the team than individuals.”

Of course if Kentucky wanted, they would have individuals leading any countable category in the conference. Instead the top Wildcat scorer, guard Devin Booker, averages just 11.0 points-per and is 25th-highest in the SEC this week. That’s right ahead of guard Aaron Harrison at 26th. Rebounding, Karl-Anthony Townns and Willey Cauley-Stein are 9th and 10th this week, on a team that also leads the league in hyphens.

Where the team utterly stands out is, in team stats. First in SEC shooting, second in scoring, second in rebounding, third in assists, and a runaway first in blocking shots. The Wildcats may only be middling in scoring treys, but obviously outside shooting is not the first offensive option. Not with post play superior to anyone in amateur basketball today.

And this isn’t the worst of MSU’s matchup challenges. “I look at their defensive statistics,” Ray said. “They’re elite in that regard.”

Which is not good news at all for a State squad that even on good nights and even when full-strength struggles to shoot and score consistently. If scoring balance meant success the Bulldogs would be rolling too. The problem is that while four players are within five SEC spots of each other today, those spots are 33rd (center Gavin Ware) through 38th. Only Ware is in double-digits for the entire season at 10.2 points.

If State’s center reaches double-digits this time it will be an achievement. Even Ray agrees, “You don’t expect much on the first paint-touch against Kentucky.” Meaning this can’t be the usual pitch-to-post and try to win individual matchups. First, the Wildcats can typically take care of things solo. But when needed help arrives fast, and produces lots of those blocks.

Though the two teams can’t be compared in another sense, Florida State was a similarly-physical frontcourt team. The Bulldogs won that time; Ware came off the bench for ten points. He and fellow forwards and posts were a combined 11-of-20 shooting.

Making the real difference that day though was forward Travis Daniels going 5-of-9; while for maybe the first true time this soph season Ready asserted himself on offense, hitting 6-of-7 shots. Ready was easily lead Dog, both at the point and in points, for much of SEC season before first hitting a wall three weeks ago. Then rolling an ankle to begin the second half with Ole Miss set him back further. In the five games before missing last Saturday Ready had 31 total points.

With Ready limited or out, Ware has worked harder inside and shot well the last two losses. Daniels too has broken out of a mid-season shell with 23 points the last two games, getting more free throw chances by aggressive moves. State needs Daniels to attack even more. In the last seven games when settling four outside shots he is just 4-of-14; anything inside the arc he is 10-of-17.

State’s best offense of late though is Sword, averaging 17.3 for a four-game stretch. His accuracy isn’t great but that’s just because Sword by default must take a lot of shots in less than ideal situations. He also finds himself at times the de facto point guard, either because Ready is out or defenses keep the ball away from the primary quarterback. Turnovers are inevitable.

And, a team trademark whoever has the ball. While opponents do throw pressure defenses at the Dogs often as not, that isn’t the issue Ray says. “I don’t think it’s forced turnovers. Most of our turnovers the past two games have come when you’ve broken the press. It’s more ourselves than the opposing team.”

That’s fact. State just struggles moving and passing the basketball. If practice could fix this, it would have by now. Because Dogs are drilled daily in such fundamentals. Setting aside the larger fact that by now players are what they are, ball-handling or whatever, all Ray can do is keep honing what he has to work with.

Besides, as Ray reminds, “if you take away our turnovers we’re an elite defensive team.” It looks odd at first glance but the coach has a point; poor as the offense can be, they could make life easier on the other end by not giving the opponent the ball and transition opportunities.

It’s telling that here in late February the Bulldog coach talks more about how to further improve the defense—“contest shots more, pressure the ball more, all the way out to the three-point line”—than anything to add scoring. “And try do a good job carrying out our scouting report,” Ray said.

If the specifics of this matchup don’t bode well for the Bulldogs, neither does history. State has lost the last seven meetings, and 18 of the last 22 in the series. Individually, neither Ray (0-3) nor former coach Rick Stansbury (0-5 counting a 2008 NCAA game against Memphis) have defeated a Calipari club.

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