It’s selection Sunday but Mississippi State men’s basketball is in anticipation of nothing. It will mark the first three-year stretch without any postseason tournament play since 1987-1989. There isn’t a lot of optimism around the program, but it would be extremely surprising if Rick Ray was not retained for the 2015-16 season.
The yearly records under Coach Ray have not been impressive:
- 2013: 10-22 (4-14)
- 2014: 14-19 (3-15)
- 2015: 13-19 (6-12)
But what has been accomplished? Is the program regressing, stagnant, or moving forward (even just a little bit)? Let’s try to take a deeper look at what’s gone on over Coach Ray’s tenure at MSU.
While non-conference games are sometimes boring and seem like just a warm-up for league play, they can be vitally important for making the NIT or NCAA Tournaments at the conclusion of the regular season.
- 2013: 5-7
- 2014: 10-3
- 2015: 7-6
The first season was a complete dumpster fire and everyone understands that. Everything was going wrong off the court with transfers and injuries, and the non-conference schedule on the court wasn’t conducive to winning. Year two showed Ray could beat lesser teams as he did what he needed to do. But year three is what stings the most here, especially considering it was expected to be his best team and the schedule wasn’t that difficult. The 7-6 record here ultimately cost MSU at a shot to play in the CBI tournament as they lost three games to inferior teams.
Point margin in SEC play
These are the average point margins, in conference play, for all 18 games.
- 2013: -15.3
- 2014: -9.2
- 2015: -5.4
Clearly the team has improved despite the lack of increase in overall wins. To go from getting blown out almost every game to being competitive is certainly an improvement. I think we can safely say the program is not regressing, but is this really an improvement or the sign of a stagnant program?
The question going forward, assuming Coach Ray is staying in Starkville, is three fold:
- Will additional improvement in year four translate the close losses into wins?
- What happens when the core (Craig Sword, Fred Thomas, Gavin Ware) leaves after the 2016 season?
- Is there a legitimate reason to believe Coach Ray can get MSU to the NCAA Tournament?
In my opinion, the answer to number one is probably “yes”. But the answers to number two and three aren’t too positive. Aside from signing Malik Newman, the 2016 team would have to make a tremendous jump to get to the big dance. I think they will get to the NIT, all but assuring Ray another year, and the program likely regresses to a year such as 2015 and he gets fired.
Aside from signing Newman for a 2016 one-and-done season, I don’t see any legitimate reason to believe Coach Ray can get to the NCAA Tournament. In fact, I think I can see a legit reason why he can’t…
In 2013 and 2014 the roster was a complete disaster. It wasn’t Rick Ray’s fault that no starters returned from the 2012 team (it would’ve taken the greatest salesman in the country to get Rodney Hood to stay). It certainly wasn’t his fault that player after player went down with injury. There were under eight scholarship players in each of his first two years. Gavin Ware was the only player at least 6′-9″ in height both years, and the team never had more than three guys who were at least 6′-7″.
In 2015, Ray had a full compliment of scholarship players. He had three players at 6′-9″ and five at least 6′-7″. While Craig Sword and I.J. Ready battled injury early on, the inexcusable losses to Arkansas State, South Carolina Upstate and McNeese State ultimately killed the season. The team was horrible on offense and very inconsistent during SEC play. This wasn’t good to see in year three, especially when the core of your team had been in the program all three years.
Under Rick Ray, Mississippi State has finished 13th, 14th and 12th in the SEC. In a year where the program was supposed to take a leap forward, they didn’t. There’s no doubt they took a step forward, but with the added depth and height on the team wasn’t that the minimum?
In conclusion, I think Rick Ray deserves another year and here’s why: I sat right here on M&WN and said Dan Mullen had done the minimum from 2011-13 to keep his job and I wasn’t sure he was going to take MSU to the next level….and he proved emphatically that my doubts were inaccurate (to say the least). On a somewhat lesser scale, Rick Ray is at that same crossroads. The main difference, however, is that Mullen proved in 2010 that he was indeed a good coach capable of winning while Ray has never proven such.
So while I’d give Ray one more year, a trip to the NIT isn’t justification for a fifth year. It’s big dance or bust. It’s time – with Sword, Thomas and Ware as seniors; Ready as a junior plus a handful of compliment players and incoming freshman who should improve the offense, it’s time to prove he can get to the NCAA Tournament. The 2015 team should have been on the NIT bubble, but they aren’t. So getting to the NIT in 2016 isn’t a big step in the right direction, it’s just a snail’s pace crawl that results in a handful of steps back in 2017, and that’s not something State fans are interesting in seeing.