Mississippi State (1-0) resumes the new season tomorrow evening by hosting Kennesaw State in a 7:00 contest at Humphrey Coliseum. It is the second contest for Ray’s team, which opened up last Friday by beating Prairie View 71-56.
But Thursday’s matchup with the Owls was of secondary Wednesday interest what with November’s early signing week starting. During the teleconference Ray wasn’t able to talk names. The prospects expected to sign-on with Mississippi State either hadn’t done so yet or were still enjoying signing ceremonies. Just as the Bulldog coach wanted them to do.
“I was on the phone last night with prospects and families and coaches, making sure everything was good,” said Ray. “Most kids have waited for this day to sign a national letter of intent and play college basketball, it’s more a celebration than anything else.”
Names were forthcoming from State during the day. What the head coach was free to say was his general goals for the second recruiting class, or in a real sense his first full recruiting campaign.
“I think first and foremost we have an adage, we want to recruit guys that hate to lose and love to win,” Ray said. “So that’s the thing you want.” In the intangible sense, he meant. More practically…Ray wants people who will put up points.
“I think if you watched college basketball yesterday and the 24-hour marathon, what you need is guys that can make shots. That’s the one thing I took away.” Not just outside shots, though this is an area of obvious interest for a State squad which struggled to throw in if not always up three-pointers last winter. A 4-of-12 evening at the arc last Friday reinforced this priority.
But in Ray’s motion-based offensive philosophy it is equally important to get takes and makes from closer ranges. This is emphasized by NCAA rules revisions which should give offense more advantages. Mississippi State requires more players who can take those advantages.
“We want guys with skill levels who can make shots, and dribble and drive too. You can’t ignore athleticism, but we want kids that are into working on their game and getting better.”
The second-year Bulldog coach was anticipating a smoother start to this signing season. Not just because he made all the necessary and legal contacts this week to tie up any lingering loose ends, but the process itself is easier he says.
“It used to be a cumbersome thing but now with email and scans of official documents it’s not as hard to process,” he said today. “We’d secured some commitments two years ago, and some a month ago. It’s not ‘pins and needles’, it’s just making sure nothing goes wrong.”
Returning to Bulldogs already in uniform and the season just underway, Ray saw a lot go right in the opener. “It was a good win for our team, it was a positive to play somebody and kind of get a gauge.” State built a ten-point lead by halftime over the SWAC visitor, and while the offense slowed after intermission the defense made sure Prairie View was not going to rally.
Most encouraging to the coach was how his team attacked missed shots at each end. The SEC’s poorest rebounding club of 2013 is showing improvement for ’14 already.
“We rebounded well. The bad part was we rebounded a lot of our own shots.” This was a worry because while 45.5% shooting for a full season would be improvement, a Mississippi State team should have made a better rate against a SWAC opponent.
“And we’ve got to take better care of the basketball,” said Ray after 21 turnovers in the opener. Six were by soph Craig Sword, who is supposed to be handing off most ball-handlings duties to freshman I.J. Ready. Yet on opening night the new point guard became a scorer instantly, making 6-of-10 with two treys in three tries for 14 total points. Ready did have three turnovers against two assists, though.
And Prairie View had fewer turnovers than State, 19 to 21. This surprised Ray. “I thought in scrimmages and practices we had taken better care of the ball, but you’re not going to have a lot of success with 21 turnovers.” Not against better opponents anyway.
Center Gavin Ware led State with 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting and more impressively 15 rebounds, beginning his sophomore season with a true double-double. The thing is, “I didn’t think Gavin played well in the first half,” said Ray. “We challenged him and he went out and had a double-double in the second half.”
State played the debut without soph wing guard Fred Thomas, who was serving a one-game penalty for playing in a summer charity game not approved by the NCAA. “That was a one-game deal, most of the time it is a game-for-game basis,” said Ray. Thomas is back in good graces for Thursday and the rest of the season.
But the entire roster will still stay short. Some of the new walk-ons can’t play (they can practice) until the second semester for eligibility requirements; and a couple more are either hurt or sick at the moment and won’t dress out. Also, redshirt guard Jacoby Davis remains unavailable as his recovery from two freshman year knee surgeries continues.
“I don’t expect Jacoby to play this week. Now, he has been doing some five-on-five contact,” said Ray. With good results in that Davis’ knee has held up with minimal after-effects. Ray offers the possibility Davis could be activated in another week, maybe.
Kennesaw State is 1-3 on the season, and leaving their campus for the first time. The Owls are led by forwards Orlando Coleman (10.5 points and 7.0 rebounds) and Bernard Moreno (9.5, 6.0). Despite the record so-far, this team has been stronger defensively by allowing sub-40% shooting to opponents and 30% accuracy at the arc.
“The one thing that jumps out is they’re a long, athletic team,” Ray said. “Their wings are 6-5, 6-7, they’ve got a kid from Auburn (Willy Kouassi) who is 6-10, 240 pounds. And centers with length and girth give Gavin problems. They’re bigger and taller than our wings.”
The Bulldogs are back on the home court next Tuesday, hosting Mississippi Valley State.