Ray Taking MSU Measure In Sunday Exhibition

Jalen Steele

He's put them through a long list of game-type practices, from last minute situations to entire halves. Now Rick Ray gets to see his Bulldogs operate in a complete game setting. An exhibition game to be sure. But a game all the same. "I'm looking forward more to this as a measuring stick," said Ray of Sunday's contest with William Carey.

The 4:00 game in Humphrey Coliseum is Mississippi State's first and only official exhibition this preseason. It hasn't come soon enough for the Bulldogs. "We're ready for the exhibition game," said guard Jalen Steele. "After practice with each other." Practicing hard and often at that and with some heavy scrimmaging along the way.

There also was an unofficial scrimmage against UAB over the weekend as allowed by NCAA rules…as long as neither school treated it as a ‘game' per se. Thus no numbers or even comments on that private event could be provided by Ray and State players.

But the Wednesday intrasquad half-game scrimmage and no-contact-barred action showed it is probably best the Bulldogs see somebody else on the court. Soon. They might be challenged to stay within Ray's defensive goal of being physical without fouling. Still, "I can't wait to start after all the hard work and practicing and running we've been doing," Steele said.

His coach agrees. For that matter Ray might be the most motivated of all Sunday. Not only is it the first real test for the team, it is his own initial game as a head coach.

"I have to temper my enthusiasm at times, too," said Ray. "I'm excited about basketball in general. But getting a chance to see all the work come to fruition going out to play the game of basketball, I'm excited about that opportunity."

State players have their own Sunday opportunities to show just how far they've come in learning and applying Ray's ideas of offense and defense. Beyond the physical and the fast that is; those aspects they picked up quickly and even enthusiastically, as to be expected. When Ray preached up-tempo at the first team meeting everyone listened.

And they still like how it all sounds. By now though much more is involved than just going fast as Ray and staff introduce finer points and demand execution. The initial enthusiasm remains.

"He's the kind of coach I like," forward Rocquez Johnson said. "He has us in great shape and he makes sure everything is perfect. Like in offense, we'll go all day until we get it down."

This has put added pressure on the very few veterans to both perform and teach at the same time, said center Wendell Lewis. Especially because there are seven newcomers on the 2012-13 roster and only two Dogs who have a SEC start to their career credit.

"I mean being the only senior you've got a bunch of young guys you expect to listen to you. And you have to be a leader, not make mistakes and take a day off. I'm enjoying the role, and Jalen backs me up."

Steele agreed. "They ask questions, what's going to go in a game, what the pace of the game, what type of offense, how to get off screens, stuff like that. And we tell them in practice this is what you can and can't do. And they're really buying into it."

With an exhibition game nearing, not to mention the real season a week later, Ray has shifted from pure practices to much more scrimmaging. He has gone with four- and five-minute periods of officiated play to get players into the sort of rhythm a game would feature between TV timeouts. Then there are last-minute situations with scripted scores, leading or trailing.

The idea, Ray said, being to see how a new club and coach in a new system respond with or without the ball and how decisions get made in the crunch. "Then we show the film, the time-and-score, and what their decision-making was."

Given that Ray's idea of motion offense is far from the repeated pass-pass-pass of the past, designed to attack the goal rather than just wait for something to come open, it isn't surprising he reports State is "a little bit behind" in some areas. Specifically the half-court schemes. The transition offense is much farther along. "Defensively we've got a long ways to go in things like rotation, sinking help-side, but that's pretty typical right now and early in the season."

At first it was kind of slow," Steele said of adjusting to this version of motion. "We had to talk to each other, tell each other where to go. And Coach kept explaining how he wanted it run. Now I think we're doing pretty good with the transition on offense."

The Bulldogs would be doing even better if not for a turnover trend, probably inevitable with so much new-ness everywhere. Most notably at point guard where Trivante Bloodman is having to take over and alternate with some shooting guard types.

"We've got to get that down big time," Steele said. "Most of it comes from the point guard and two-guard positions. But we've got to get that down and control the ball, and control the pace of the game. Trivante and Craig (Sword) just have to be patient and control the offense." Speaking of Sword, he and fellow frosh Fred Thomas have already shown they can give Steele a hand with the backcourt scoring.

For that matter, "Another strength we're going to have is probably shooting," Steele said, "because everybody on the team can shoot it."

Rebounding might be a battle for a squad short-handed on big men though. Lewis will work center full-time and count on freshman Gavin Ware for backup around the basket. "He's a big body. He's a good kid and he got in shape, lost weight and he runs the floor real well," Lewis said. "He goes to the glass, rebounds."

Meanwhile Johnson is sharing the big forward spot with Colin Borchert, a juco shooter who now needs to do a lot more than just fire long jumpers. Borchert did go to the boards well in Wednesday's scrimmaging, too and has added some needed muscle since summer.

"We go hard at each other every day in practice," Johnson said. "Fighting and working to make each other better."

Ray said he has not picked a starting lineup for Sunday. "No, far from it!" he responded. Nor for that matter have team captains been named. In fact, "I may not pick captains until we play a few games. To me captain is being a leader, and you show leadership in games and practices."

The coaching staff does hope fans Sunday can see some leadership, not to mention points and rebounds and a win for valuable season-starting momentum. "But the other thing I'm looking forward to the most is our guys playing with enthusiasm."

Of course the Bulldogs just look forward to playing ball. Not only the exhibition, but the oncoming season. Outside forecasts aren't exactly glowing to say the least, and even the fan base is cautious at best. Never mind that, say players.

"I think we're going to win more games than people expect," Steele said.

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