Humphrey Coliseum finds a quartet of upperclassmen making their final home-court appearances when Mississippi State hosts Missouri. Tipoff is 5:30 for the SEC Network. This regular season finale rematches clubs which met three weekends ago, with the Bulldogs winning 77-74.
As part of pre-game, scholarship seniors Roquez Johnson and Trivante Bloodman, and walks-ons Isaiah Butler and Jeffery Johnson, will be recognized for the home finale. Also, Mississippi State is making available half-priced tickets for those who participate in a Tornado Relief Initiative by donating non-perishable food, clothing, batteries, flashlights, and batteries. This is part of the Kroger Million Meals Challenge and foodstuffs will go to the Mississippi Food Network. Bins will be located at the ticket office for collection of all items.
It won’t be only the seniors who badly want to walk off the floor winners one more time, before ending the season in next week’s SEC Tournament. The Bulldogs are 12-18 overall and 5-11 SEC. They’ve left no margin for matching last year’s win total of 14, but have exceeded the four conference victories of Ray’s first season.
And the fifth win came at Missouri. Playing in Columbia, the Bulldogs dominated the first three-quarters of play and built enough margin to hold up in a late Tiger rally. At that time State stood 5-7 SEC and had realistic ambition of at least breaking-even on the full season.
Five-straight losses since have dashed such hopes. The goal of avoiding a first-round game in Nashville ended Wednesday with, ironically enough, a loss at Vanderbilt. It wasn’t for any lack of effort from an underclassman. Junior guard Craig Sword continued to carry his club as best possible, scoring a game-best 20 points for over 1/3 of his team’s offense in the 66-56 loss.
Missouri’s season was settled much longer-ago, thanks to a 13-SEC game losing streak. The Tigers (9-21, 3-14) have shown some late life though, winning at home over both Florida and Auburn. A win tomorrow would technically ‘tie’ them with the other Tigers for 13th place in final league standings, assuming Auburn loses at home to Georgia.
For Mississippi State, the best possible SEC finish would be 11th, if they can win tomorrow and South Carolina loses at Tennessee, too. This is not an entirely meaningless matter. #11 will play #14 the first day in Nashville, and that winner advance to meet the #6 seed. Given how Rick Ray’s first two teams were able to win opening-round games in league tournaments, this also counts for something.
Otherwise the numbers mimic the respective teams’ standing in the conference at the season’s end. These are the two lowest-scoring SEC squads for the full season’s statistics, with the Bulldogs being marginally better at overall shooting and rebounding alike. Where Missouri has an edge is making two more treys per-game, and committing two fewer turnovers.
And turnovers are very much on Mississippi State minds, as usual. The Bulldogs were playing Vanderbilt well until a second-half rash of turnovers and missed rebounds. By both teams to be sure as neither side played well on offense. State just had more of the mistakes and the home squad took enough advantage.
Now that they are home, against an inefficient offense, the Dogs need to reverse this trend. Missouri might sit in the cellar but as Ray said, “To have success against any team in the SEC we have to take care of the basketball.”
And, get more than Sword involved with scoring. Though he has assuredly done his part and often that of a few others. Ray is justified in late-season politicking for Sword to get at least honest All-SEC consideration. The pre-season back surgery and slow comeback still show in his all-season scoring average of 10.8 points. But for SEC season Sword is putting in 14.4 points, among the league’s leaders, and this with defenses hounding his every move. He’s even become a respectable three-point shooter to complement his drive-the-lane style.
As Ray noted this week, Sword is one of the top-ten SEC game scorers on a squad that ranks near the bottom of same category. “I think he’s done a great job and hopefully he gets recognized for that.”
To win though means more than Sword scoring. Missouri should present center Gavin Ware a matchup opportunity to do better than his normal averages of 10.2 points and 7.2 rebounds. Though that again depends on keeping things going in the right direction. Point guard IJ Ready will have to handle a Tiger defense that comes after the ball hard and does have one of the SEC’s leading thieves on the perimeter.
The wild card as usual can be Johnson, who had what Ray called the key late-game basket that offset Missouri’s comeback. The last of the Bulldogs who played for the previous regime, Johnson’s career hasn’t gone as he likely hoped. There won’t be any NCAA Tournament trips, though that’s also true of every Dog arriving since 2009. And Johnson will not have started for any winning State squad.
What Ray looks at is how a guy he inherited after scoring a single point as a true freshman developed himself into a respectable SEC forward. And most of all, “The fact he stayed here when the change happened. That means a lot to me because he could have chose to go somewhere. But he showed faith, persevering without a lot of rewards.”
Guard Bloodman was part of Ray’s first recruiting class, a transfer with three years eligibility. By no means a front-rank guard Bloodman’s presence was still invaluable last season when Ready couldn’t play and Sword was the other practical option at point guard. This year with Ready maturing, Bloodman has had to settle for backup duty.
“Trivante was one of the first recruits to come on board. Obviously his senior hear he’d like to see more playing time, but he’s a team guy. He knows IJ can bring some things to the table he can’t, and he’s stuck with the team.”