Nov 24, 2014; Starkville, MS, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Rick Ray during the game against the Clayton State Aggies at Humphrey Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports
There hasn’t been a lot of time to discuss the basketball team in the early stages of the season. Now that there isn’t much left of football except the Orange Bowl on December 31, now seems as good of a time as there has been to look at what the basketball team has done up until this point. The Bulldogs will enter their game with the Beavers of Oregon State on Saturday with a 5-2 record. They have some pretty good wins over Saint Louis and Utah State. They looked bad against TCU and couldn’t make the necessary stops or shots when needed against Tulane.
One of the biggest challenges facing the basketball team is the simple fact there is a sizable enough portion of the fans that do not and will not support Rick Ray. I’m not going to get into that debate because it’s not going to matter. For the first time in the three years of the Rick Ray era, Ray will have a full roster and players to use. Most of the starting lineup will have played for at least two, and in most cases three, seasons under Ray as the head coach. It is a veteran heavy team that won’t have to play the entire game. If Ray is going to work out as the Mississippi State head basketball coach, there has to be signs that the program is going in the right direction.
What those signs actually are though is up for debate. Some think it means that Mississippi State has to make the NIT. Some think that we just need to be in the discussion for the NIT. And some will never accept Ray because of their loyalty to Stansbury. So what does that mean to me? Here is what I will be looking for this basketball season.
Must have more wins: Ray has averaged 12 wins overall and 3.5 in SEC play in his first two years. This was excusable considering what Ray was stepping into. That just can’t happen this year. If we can’t find a way to get to somewhere around 17 or 18 wins and 6 in SEC play, then we aren’t making the necessary steps we need to as a program. Just having a full roster of players should result in two additional wins in SEC play. We don’t have to be juggernauts, but we do need some more Ws. Ideally, find a way to not play on the first day of the SEC tournament. Do that, and I think you have a good sign the team is headed in the right direction.
Players must develop: The players that have been the backbone since Ray showed up have been Craig Sword, Gavin Ware, and Fred Thomas. These three have to show some development. They all have some very specific ways in which they have been great, but their games have to be more diverse. Sword has to find another way to score besides driving to the basket. Ware has to establish more of an offensive identity down low. Thomas needs to be more consistent.
We need an offensive identity: The Bulldogs have shown a commitment to the defensive side of the ball under Rick Ray, but they have not shown any kind of identity on the offensive side of the floor. The team does a good job when they create turnovers and get out on the break of creating scoring opportunities, but when the team has to use their half court sets, they often get bogged down and take a poor shot before the shot clock expires.
Recruiting has to improve: The good news about this is we have already seen this come to fruition. The Bulldogs have signed three players in the early signing period and are right in the middle of SEC in the recruiting ranks. That doesn’t include the crown jewel of the state of Mississippi Malik Newman. No one is expecting the Bulldogs to sign the likely one and done player, but they are given a 32% chance according to the Crystal Ball projections at 247sports.com.
If I see these things happen, then I think we will be turning the corner under Rck Ray. Ray had two years free. This is the first year that there will need to be some noticeable improvement. I don’t foresee Stricklin making any kind of head coaching move after this season unless the team is so bad that he doesn’t have a choice. It’s time that the Bulldogs put some results on the floor if we are going to continue in this direction.