When Rick Ray walks on the floor of The Hump this Saturday morning, it will be the first time he’s ever seen his team play basketball. His whole team, that is, as the NCAA rules regarding off-season practice have prevented the entire team from practicing with Ray and the staff.
Of course, it will also be Ray’s first true practice as a head coach.
“I’m really looking forward to that first day,” Ray said. “Our team comes out there with enthusiasm and excitement.”
As official practice begins and Mississippi State prepares to open the season, Ray has specific goals in mind, some physical and some mental.
One of the most important things for the new head coach is to install his motion offense, which he concedes can be complicated.
“We can’t get frustrated teaching motion,” Ray said. “You can’t get frustrated with the process. To me, motion offense is the purest form of basketball. It lets guys play their game.”
While it allows players to perform at a high level, Ray said one of the greatest strengths of his motion offense is the difficulty opposing teams have in scouting it.
There aren’t a great deal of specifics to be gained from studying film, and Ray said someone playing forward in his offense could be at as many as four different spots on the floor over the course of one possession.
Naturally, his team will have to be in good physical shape to move so much. The good news on the conditioning front?
“We’ve got willing workers. There hasn’t been a day when I’ve come in and had to push guys to work hard,” Ray said. “I want to instill a work ethic in these guys. That’s the most important aspect of us being good.”
For example, freshman forward Gavin Ware arrived this summer pushing 300 pounds. Over the last few months, the forward has dropped to a leaner and healthier 270 pounds.
“Gavin’s been great. It’s real simple. As Gavin’s weight has decreased, his performance went up,” Ray said. “Coach Akins has done a tremendous job with him.”
Ray also has some goals for fans who watch his games. Goals less specific to Xs and Os and more about what Bulldog fans can expect to see from their team.
“From a fan perspective, every time they come see us play, did my team play harder than the other team? Answer’s gotta be yes. Did my team play tougher than the other team? I want the answer to be yes. And finally, did my team play smarter than the other team? If our fans can walk away saying yes, yes and yes to those questions, then we’ve been successful.”
His psychological goal for his players is to have “a true team,” one that cares about each other and enjoys each other both on and off the court.
Ray also wants to make sure his team is improving. Early mistakes won’t bother him, he just wants to make sure they’re not making the same errors in February they did in November.
As for some of his individuals, Ray has mostly good news.
Freshman guard Fred Thomas, one of the more highly-recruited players on the team, has an X-ray on his foot later today to determine if he can remove his walking boot and how soon he can begin practicing with the team.
And it’s another freshman Ray is particularly excited about. Guard Craig Sword, affectionately nicknamed “Chicken,” will likely be one of MSU’s more explosive players.
He’s going to be one of the point guards, too, as Jacoby Davis is out for the season with a knee injury.
The key, Ray said, is to make sure Sword is able to still maximize his talents while running the court as the point guard.
“With Chicken, we don’t want to take away his enthusiasm to go make plays,” Ray said. “The big thing Chicken does is his explosiveness. … He just has so many more fast-twitch fibers than everyone else.”
Additionally, Ray said, “You can go watch Chicken play and it’s very present. It’s pretty clear he’s a talented kid.”
Ray also has intelligence on the floor in the form of guard Andre Applewhite, who is expected to play a significant role for the Bulldogs this year.
“Andre Applewhite is a bright kid,” Ray said. “Everything you tell him, he digests and is able to carry out. He’s going to play because he knows everything.”
And in a spot, at forward, where Ray knows he needs people to step up, he’s been initially impressed with junior college transfer Colin Borchert, though he does have more he hopes to see from him as practice begins.
“I think Colin obviously is going to help becase he can shoot the ball, he’s a skilled four man,” Ray said. “The biggest predictor of Colin having success is, can he go out and rebound and defend against SEC athletes? It’s as simple as that.”
Speaking of success, Ray said he’s had plenty off the court, too.
Naturally, he can’t talk specifics, but MSU’s new head coach said he’s been pleased with how well he and his staff have done in recruiting and the reception they have received across the state and country.
“I think we’re a little bit further ahead than I imagined. With some of the moves we’ve made, we’ve set ourselves up to be successful in the future,” Ray said. “I’m really excited about the way recruiting has gone so far.”
We’ll be hearing plenty more about Mississippi State basketball in the coming days and weeks, starting on Friday when they open pre-season practices with Maroon Madness, a joint event with the city of Starkville where both the men’s and women’s basketball team will have an exhibition of sorts outside in downtown Starkville.
The event begins at 6 p.m. and includes three-point shootouts, a dunk contest, autograph session and plenty more, all free to the public.