On Wednesday (7:00 P.M., SEC Network), the Missouri Tigers (17-6, 6-4) travel to Starkville to take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs (7-15, 2-8) in SEC action. Mississippi State is coming home off of a 58-83 loss at Florida, their eighth straight loss, while Missouri heads out onto the road following a 98-79 thrashing of Ole Miss at home. Missouri is winless on the road in conference, while Mississippi State is riding a four-game home losing streak.
“(Mississippi State) is a team that I think plays extremely hard,” said Missouri Head Coach Frank Haith.
First-year Mississippi State Head Coach Rick Ray is in a tough spot. On Saturday, he suspended one of his best players, in 6’3” 194-pound junior guard Jalen Steele, for a violation of team rules. It doesn’t sound like Steele will play against Missouri.
“We’re down to six scholarship guys, and two walk-ons,” said Coach Ray. “The thing we want to talk about to our team is just improving.”
Coach Ray is not only faced with depth issues. He’s also faced with an overall lack of talent. The Bulldogs are pretty athletic, but some of their most talented basketball players are freshmen.
One of Coach Ray’s best players is 6’9” 210-pound freshman forward Gavin Ware, who is averaging 9.0 points/game, and 6.8 rebounds/game. He’s shooting 56% from the field.
“You take a kid like Gavin Ware,” continued Coach Ray. “He had a little bit of a lull when we started SEC play…………………………………. But now he’s starting to come back and be a force in the paint for us. So, I’m trying to find ways to get him better individually.”
Another one of Coach Ray’s best players is 6’3” 189-pound freshman guard Craig Sword, who is averaging 9.8 points/game, 3.5 rebounds/game, 1.2 assists/game, and 1.7 steals/game.
“He has a high turnover rate,” said Coach Ray, talking about Sword. “I’m just trying to get him to reduce the turnovers, so that he can be the basketball player that we know he can be. So, we’re focusing in on the little things, like individual player development.”
With the suspension of Steele, 6’5” 191-pound freshman guard Fred Thomas has been moved into the starting lineup. Thomas has played a lot, coming off of the Mississippi State bench, and he leads the Bulldogs in scoring, with an average of 10.5 points/game. He also averages 3.5 rebounds/game, 1.2 assists/game, and 1.7 steals/game. Thomas has taken more than twice as many 3-PT shots as any of his teammates, but he’s making just 25% of his 3-PT FG attempts.
Completing the Bulldogs’ starting lineup is 6’8” 231-pound junior forward Colin Borchert, and 6’0” 182-pound sophomore guard Trivante Bloodman. Borchert is a stretch four, who is averaging 7.8 points/game, 4.6 rebounds/game, 1.5 assists/game, 1 steal/game, and 1.2 blocked shots/game. He shoots 30% from behind the 3-PT arc. The first thing I noticed about Borchert is just how hard he plays.
Bloodman is averaging 5.9 points/game, 3.1 rebounds/game, 2.8 assists/game, and 1.2 steals/game. He runs the point for the Bulldogs.
Coach Ray’s bench is not deep. He has 6’7” 210-pound sophomore forward Roquez Johnson, who averages 9.2 points/game, and 4.6 rebounds/game. Johnson is a good-looking athlete, but he’s a little undersized defending in the post.
Then, there’s 6’3” 194-pound junior guard Tyson Cunningham, who averages just 2.4 points/game. He doesn’t shoot much, although he is a very good shooter, not someone an opponent would want to leave open. Johnson is shooting 43% from behind the arc, and 86% from the FT line. Johnson is the only Mississippi State player who has more assists than turnovers on the season (1.4 assist/turnover ratio).
Steele’s suspension thrust 5’10” 169-pound senior guard Baxter Price into the rotation at Florida, where he played 16 minutes against the Gators. Before that, Price had played just 23 minutes all season. He has yet to score this season.
One of Mississippi State’s biggest problems is that as a team, they don’t shoot the basketball very well. The Bulldogs rank last in the SEC in field goal percentage (41% FG%). On the season, they’re shooting just 29% from 3-PT range. They’re also last in the league in scoring margin (-6.7), assists (10.2), and assist-turnover ratio (0.6).
In addition, Mississippi State ranks near the bottom of the league in most other statistical categories. The one statistical category where Mississippi State does have a respectable ranking is in steals, where the Bulldogs are averaging 8.2 steals/game, which ranks 5th in the SEC and 54th in the country. The only other statistical categories in which Mississippi State ranks in the top 200 nationally are blocked shots (3.9 blocked shots/game, 125th nationally), and personal fouls (16.3 fouls/game, 81st nationally).
“I haven’t seen Mississippi State quit,” said Coach Haith, when asked about the Bulldogs. “I mean, they compete. They fight, and they play extremely hard! That credit goes to Rick (Ray)…………………………………….. Any team that plays as hard as they play is dangerous.”
So, the Bulldogs are not very good. They’re short-handed, and they’re on a losing streak. Their coach just wants to see improvement, even individual improvement. But, they’re dangerous because they play extremely hard. In addition, this is a road game for Missouri.