A lofty ambition, it isn’t. Then again any ambition is better than nothing going into this final week of the regular schedule. If the prospect of a free day in Nashville next week motivates Mississippi State (12-17, 5-11 SEC) then Ray will play the card.
His and State’s problem though is they also have to be in Nashville this week. And, Wednesday’s game at Vanderbilt (17-12, 7-9) is just one hand the Bulldogs must win to keep bye hopes alive. State will also need to close out the regular slate Saturday, at home, by beating Missouri. Oh and by the bye, South Carolina has to beat Tennessee (who must in-turn lose their other game) and then lose at Arkansas. Got that straight?
Until last Saturday, the Bulldogs were in reasonably good shape. Then an unexpected, and unexpected one-sided, flop at South Carolina cost whatever margin MSU owned. “We’ve put ourselves in a tough situation,” Ray said. “We have to win our last two games, and get some help. If we’d won at South Carolina we would control our destiny.”
Guard Craig Sword is at least staying hopeful. “It’s still possible. We’ve got to get these last two wins by any means.”
For now State can set aside the larger program-picture question of how year-three goals have shrunk to playing for a free day at the SEC Tournament. Preparing for Vanderbilt takes priority. The Bulldogs can count their previous game with the Commodores as a bright spot in the season.
Back on January 17, at home, State scored a 57-54 win which was among the best-played contests of Ray’s third year. The Dogs didn’t shoot well, no surprise of course; but played excellent defense and hit the backboards harder. They also hit free throws, 20 of 27, something that would have given them at least one and maybe another SEC win this season.
Since then Mississippi State has continued to develop individually and collectively to some modest extent. Vanderbilt, however, has improved much more over the same span. Ray isn’t surprised based on VU’s roster makeup.
“Those freshmen are starting to mature and play well. Damian Jones is an inside force, and because they shoot the three-point it puts you in a bind what you’re going to do defensively.” Jones surely was a force the last time with 21 points on 9-of-13 shooting. But he also missed eight of 11 free throw chances, something unlikely to be repeated on his own court.
Vanderbilt also was just 5-of-20 at the arc in Humphrey Coliseum, with Riley LaChance and James Baldwin a combined 2-of-12. Ray warns against false impressions of Commodore accuracy, especially at home.
“They’re not streaky. They can really shoot. Kevin (Stallings’) philosophy is to recruit perimeter guys who can make shots. Then when you have Jones with his back to the basket you have to pick your poison.” In January the Bulldogs picked rightly. The rematch will be riskier. Ray doesn’t want to go one-on-one in post defense, but helping means openings for others.
For their part, the Dogs were feeling good about themselves in February. They were only 5-7 SEC but that already was the most league wins of Ray’s tenure. Even consecutive losses to Ole Miss and Arkansas were well-contested games that looked like improvement. And nobody really counts a loss to Kentucky against anyone this season.
South Carolina leaves the team again self-searching. Losing was painful enough, but allowing 20 more points than the lowly Gamecocks had averaged up to then stung Ray worse. “I was really disappointed, more so with our effort on the defensive end.”
Just as frustratingly, that was one of the better shooting days for the Dogs at 48% overall and 33% at the arc. But this also offers some encouragement as, Kentucky obviously excepted, State’s shooting gradually improved through February.
Much of this is due to Sword’s excellent and usually extra efforts on offense. Take out (again) Kentucky, and in the last five games the junior is 32-of-58 from the floor, without relying too much on long shots. Staying inside the arc and driving lets Sword draw fouls and get to the stripe where he has attempted 41 free throws in the last five games.
Some games Sword provides assists; others rebounds, and he’s always looking for a steal or three. Without question he has been the key to anything State has achieved the past month, and while his full-season scoring average is just 10.4 points the SEC-season average shows his true worth. At 14.0 points even he today ranks 10th-best in league scoring.
“Just looking at the stats Craig has had a phenomenal SEC season,” Ray said. “But if you consider the fact we’re 10th (team) in scoring he’s taking a lot of the percentage of our points.” If it sounds like the coach is lobbying for his player these days, correct.
Ray is frustrated Sword was not a finalist for the Howell Trophy and is politicking for first-team All-SEC recognition now. That could be a tough sell with league media just on the all-season numbers, since Sword was a non-entity on offense in November and December while recovering from back surgery. The SEC’s coaches should have a better idea of Sword’s worth.
Sword himself isn’t concerned with lobbying. “Nah, not really. I just go out and play my hardest every night. I now my surgery set me back and I’m just trying to get through this year.” By the same token, if someone wants to put Sword’s name on any all-conference lists…
“It would mean a lot. If it happens I’ll be happy for it,” Sword said. But, “I can’t enjoy it until we get a win.”
Sword also agrees with his coach that their team goal is now winning-out and hoping for help to get that bye-day next week. Others might objectively suggest that the easier way to get a win, or two, in Nashville is to rematch in the first round with an Auburn or Missouri. This has worked Ray’s first two seasons where his teams won a SEC Tournament game.
Don’t suggest it to Sword though. “We need that first day bye. I mean we won on the first day, but it tires you out playing back-to-back.” Meaning these Dogs are actually thinking beyond the opening rounds and have another ambition on their minds?