State of the Programs: Basketball


Mar 12, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs guard Craig Sword (32) and forward Roquez Johnson (25) react to a play late in the game against the Vanderbilt Commodores in the first round of the SEC Tournament at Georgia Dome. Mississippi State defeated Vanderbilt 82-68. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

As we finish up our series with Alabama and close out the regular season, I think it is a good time to start looking at where we stand in the Big Three sports. We might as well start with the one that is going to face the most criticism, and that’s basketball.

On Court Performance

The basketball team has been reeling the last two years. Rick Ray inherited a roster depleted of most of its talent, and a recruiting class that lost some of its key signees since the coach they had signed to play for was no longer at the school. Ray has had two very similar seasons in his first two years at the helm. In his first year, the Bulldogs struggled along and only won 10 games overall, and just four of those were against SEC opponents. There were some signs of hope. In the last two home games, Mississippi State managed to win both and picked up a win in the SEC Tournament as well. Craig Sword showed signs of being a solid SEC player, and Gavin Ware also produced evidence that he was going to be a tough player to handle for the Bulldogs’ opponents.

Year two under Ray had its ups and downs. The overall win total increased from 10 to 14. Early in the nonconference season, Mississippi State had what many assumed were quality wins over Florida Gulf Coast and South Florida. Neither team ended up being as good as most pundits thought they would be. Nevertheless, the team had some momentum heading into the conference slate and got off to a good start with a 3-2 record. Then the bottom fell out. The Bulldogs didn’t win another game in the conference schedule, and finished dead last in the SEC.

Many expected Vanderbilt to make quick work of the Bulldogs in the opening round of the tournament. Rick Ray had other plans though. In his press conferences leading into the tournament, Ray talked a lot about how this tournament would say a lot about how the team would fare next year, and how he wanted to see who on his team really wanted to be there. The team stepped up. They played easily their best game of the year and throttled the Commodores 82-68. Their second round game against Ole Miss started off well. They took a 9 point lead into the locker room at half time. They would extend their lead to 13 before the shooting woes they had experienced for the previous two years caught up to them. Ole Miss sank into a zone, and the Bulldogs could barely score any points. They would lose 78-66 and end their season.

It is hard to evaluate the team’s on court performance. Not much was expected of the squad either year, and not much was delivered. Rick Ray has not had a full roster either year. The win total overall went up from year one to year two, but the conference wins went down by one. Craig Sword has shown that he can be a good scorer, and he did cut down on his turnovers, but he is virtually a one dimensional player, only scoring inside the lane when he gets to the basket. Fred Thomas had not shown much improvement for most of the year, but after a getting benched for a game, Thomas was like a different player. If he can build on how he finished the year, Thomas could be one of the best players on the team next year. Gavin Ware has the potential to be a dominant force in the low post, but he has absolutely no help. IJ Ready also showed that he could solidify the Point Guard position, but illness and injury kept him off the floor for a good portion of the season. The losses mounted in conference play, but they weren’t as bad as the previous year, so doe that make it better or worse?

Grade: C- I’m going with this simply because many thought there would be more signs of improvement than there were. I know many who are not happy with the way the basketball team is doing would give them nothing but an F. These are rebuilding years, and the team was never going to accomplish much, no matter how much we wanted them to. Next year is big, because Ray should have a full roster with players he recruited, so what we saw the last two years simply won’t cut it.


The lifeblood of any program is recruiting. This is what is going to ultimately make or break Rick Ray. His first class brought in IJ Ready and Fallou Ndoye. IJ Ready struggled to stay on the court, and due to academic issues, Ndoye was redshirted. That makes it almost impossible to really gauge how they will work out. The 2014 class has five players coming in, four from high school and one from Jones Community College. None of them were considered superstars, but they are all considered to be solid players who should provide some much needed depth to a thin roster.

The big fish that everyone is looking to though is Malik Newman. The shooting guard from Jackson is considered one of the top prospects in the country by every recruiting service. It will be a long shot for Rick Ray to land him as just about every top level school is coming after him as well. The good news is that he still has Mississippi State listed as one of the schools he is considering, and to be this close to the early signing period in basketball, that means we are at least making improvements in our ability to recruit top level players.

Grade: Incomplete. None of the recruiting classes that Ray has brought in has gotten much buzz, but we haven’t really see how any of them will fair. If Ray can figure out a way to get Newman to sign on, then the grade immediately becomes an A. He has that kind of talent.

Fans’ Perception

The biggest hurdle that is facing the Mississippi State basketball program isn’t on the court, but in the stands each game. Fan support for the program is at possibly its lowest levels since the 1980s. The Hump used to be one of the toughest places to play every year, but now we have a hard time getting a 1/4 of the stadium filled.

The biggest problem is the shadow of Rick Stansbury. Every fan has a strong opinion of the former Head Coach that is now an assistant at Texas A&M. With every missed shot and every bad possession, those who still support Stansbury use it as an opportunity to criticize the decision by Scott Stricklin to let go of Stansbury. That in turn makes those who wanted a change to fire back and run Stansbury into the ground. The only way it will ever end is for the team to start winning and showing definitively that we are making improvement. I don’t think we HAVE to make the NIT Tournament next year for this to improve, but it would certainly be a step in the right direction.

Grade: F The fans aren’t happy. Even those who support Ray 100% want to see something better than what has been out on the court so far. Once a school gets irrelevant in basketball in the SEC, it is hard to ever get back. If you don’t believe me, just look at Arkansas. 20 years ago, they won the national championship and were one of the best programs in the country. Now they struggle to break even in the SEC. Mississippi State is in danger of the same happening to it.


The basketball team has played with a lot more intensity and a lot more effort than they did the last few years under Stansbury. That bought them some good will in Ray’s first year, but it didn’t carry over in to year two. The team has to get better. Most thought Ray had four years to get the ship righted, and he probably does. Stricklin will not likely pull the trigger on firing Ray after year three unless it is a complete disaster. The nonconference schedule is already getting tougher. Oregon State and Florida State were added to the schedule recently, plus we will have a definitive game against one of the best conferences in the country when they announce the lineup for the SEC/AAC Challenge. That makes me believe that Ray feels really confident about the team he is going to put on the court next year. Whatever your thoughts on Ray are, 2014-15 is vitally important. If the team doesn’t improve and Stricklin doesn’t fire Ray, then all support may be gone. If they improve but not by much, then fans will probably continue to bicker with one another.

The one caveat to all this is Malik Newman. Should the blue chip player sign with Mississippi State during the early signing period, it won’t matter what happens on the court. We could lose every game and Ray will still be back for a fourth year. If Newman signed and Ray wasn’t there, then Newman would ask for his release from his letter of intent and we would have a hard time not granting it to him. If he didn’t like whatever coach we hired, holding him to his letter of intent isn’t going to make him show up. He might consider playing ball overseas and trying his hand at the NBA draft the following year. Newman is a program changing talent, and Ray can virtually guarantee himself a job by getting the top prospect into a Bulldog uniform.

Grade: D+ There is a lot to be done still. I think Ray will get better with a full roster. If he doesn’t, basketball is going to be an explosive entity for Mississippi State Athletics.