For Bulldog basketball, conference tournament time does mean something. With the program still in a long-running rebuild the SEC’s event is their last dance each season. It has also become their chance to score at least one more win and a few personal pride points.
Yes, senior forward Johnson said, “We should do it the whole season. But it seems the end of the season guys come out and play our hardest.”
Hard enough the past two SEC Tourneys to win a first-round game. In 2013, for Coach Rick Ray’s debut in the conference carnival, those Dogs knocked off South Carolina before falling to Tennessee. Last year Mississippi State whipped Vanderbilt and lost a well-played battle with Ole Miss.
So for all the other struggles getting Bulldog basketball off the ground again, Ray can claim one unique State status: he is the first coach to win a game in both his first two SEC Tournaments.
Wednesday, his third Bulldog team will try to continue at least this trend. State (13-18, 6-12 SEC) plays Auburn (12-19, 4-14) in a matchup of #12 and #13 seeds. Tipoff at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena is 6:00ct on the SEC Network.
Mississippi State doesn’t go to Nashville on any real roll. But they did halt a five-loss streak and ended the regular schedule with a 52-43 win over hapless Missouri. Sophomore guard I.J. Ready reads that success as a positive turn of events.
“I think it was good to get that win. For the last two years we went to the SEC Tournament pumped and playing good, this leads us in going to the tournament having momentum.” How much, is anyone’s guess, but an upbeat attitude is better than the alternative.
State also has reason for optimism with their matchup. Back on January 21 the Bulldogs beat Auburn 78-71, and did it in Auburn to boot. At the time the Tigers were playing well for first-year Coach Bruce Pearl in his full-court style. State’s success was a modest surprise; more so was how dominant the Dogs were most of the evening until a frenetic Tiger comeback made it tight at the end.
Ray will disagree about dominating the game. He does acknowledge it was one of the best all-around showings by State all season, against a very different sort of opponent from the regular SEC run. “We were able to handle their press, and did a good job throwing the ball over the top and attacking. Our guys made smart decisions when attacking.”
That night showed State had the athletes to beat the Tigers at their own game, as long as Auburn rushed outside shots and missed them. “The other thing is we did a pretty good job on the defensive glass,” Ray said. This matters more than usual in this matchup because defensive rebounds are the best way to prevent the press. Given MSU issues this season with inbounding the ball, it is mandatory.
Four Dogs scored double-digits at Auburn, led by Ready’s 18 points; all inside the arc or at the foul line. The most efficient evening belonged to center Gavin Ware with 6-of-7 field goaling and 4-of-4 at the stripe for 16 points. But Ware’s greater impact was a career-best 17 rebounds, as the postman ran the floor harder than ever to get to the glass at each end.
That was also the evening guard Craig Sword began looking like, well, himself after a long and frustrating recovery from October back surgery. Playing near his Montgomery hometown likely made Sword feel better, too. He only scored ten points in the win.
But, it was the beginning of Sword’s rise to lead Dog duty again. In 12 of the 13 games since he has scored double-digits, giving the junior a final SEC-season average of 14.4. Sword’s all-season average is just 11.0 because of the slow return, and that was probably the stat that kept him second-team All-SEC.
Ray had hoped Sword’s feats would be better recognized. “I think he’s had a first-team All-SEC performance. He means the world to this team because he’s the guy the other team has to worry about. He’s at the top of the scouting report and he’s done a good job still coming through.”
Now full-strength, Sword should set a faster pace against an up-and-down Auburn approach. If Ware can repeat anything close to his performance in the first meeting the Bulldogs have an excellent chance to advance again. Ray wants Ready to get back to driving-and-dishing and using his outside shot as a third or fourth option on offense.
What Ray always comes back to though is the other end of the court. State ended the schedule with the first sub-50-point scoring by an opponent since 2008, and never mind Missouri’s sad situation. It was getting back to Bulldog basics as the coach prefers.
“I told our team we needed to get back to our identity. We did a poor job defensively at South Carolina and Vanderbilt and that’s not our identity. That’s a goal of ours, to keep people in the 50s.”
This may not be a practical goal Wednesday. Auburn is by no means efficient, shooting under 41% and getting out-boarded by nearly six rebounds a night. But the Tigers are relentless in tempo, taking the first middling-good shot available and hounding ball-handlers into turnovers for easy points.
Forced into half-court, Auburn’s K.T. Harrell is a threat to bomb away at and even way beyond the arc, with Simeon Bowers is an active post able to drive and get the close shot or a fast foul. And whatever the Tigers try, it happens quickly.
“They propose a very different type of deal because of the way they play,” said Ray.
SEC Tournaments have been a different type of deal for Dog teams lately. By no means does taking a first-round win offset the entire lost season. State has to beat Auburn just to match the 2014 victory total, in fact.
This team isn’t content with just one win, they say. Been there, done that. “What you want to see is the progression,” Ray said. “We like to get to where we win the first game, and now win the second game. That shows progression in what you’re doing.”
Besides, if a college kid has to miss spring break for a basketball tournament, why not make the stay last long as possible? “It’d be real big to get the second one,” Ready said.