Bulldog hoopsters working on defense in advance of season-opener

Two days.

After a search, a hiring, a press conference and lots of practice, Rick Ray is two days from the season-opener and his regular-season debut as Mississippi State’s basketball coach.

“I’m not nervous, it’s not eagerness,” Ray said. “I’m just enthusiastic about getting things underway.”

Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, the game is on the road at Troy, though one of MSU’s major sports has already won in Trojan territory this fall.

Just like that football game, MSU can expect a loud atmosphere. In fact, MSU will be participating in the first game at Troy’s new coliseum, opening the arena for the Trojans.

“We gotta weather the storm. There’s gonna be a lot of hype and excitement from Troy,” Ray said. “If we can sustain the first blow and calm down and play basketball, we’ll be fine.”

As Ray heads to into the game, he’s applying lessons learned from MSU’s exhibition win over William Carey on Sunday.

In fact, the head coach said he watched film of the game twice that day, taking notes and studying his team.

What’d he learn?

The defense needs work. A lot of it. Both individually and as a team.

Offensively, things were better, Ray said, but he still wants improvement.

That said, Ray still doesn’t know his team, and he doesn’t expect to immediately. That’s just part of basketball, and part of having a youthful roster.

“I don’t think you know what we’ve got for sure, yet. It’s always interesting how guys react to competition,” Ray said. “I don’t know if we’ll have a true evaluation of our guys until a few games into the season.”

Of course, Ray is learning about his players, some good and some bad.

With the season-ending injury to guard Andre Applewhite, walk-on Tyson Cunningham will see an increased role for MSU.

Cunningham has only played sparingly in years past with the Bulldogs and doesn’t have much experience in games where the outcome hasn’t yet been decided. The transition is new for him, but nothing Ray wasn’t prepared for.

“I think, if you’re on the basketball team, you should have every intention of playing. We were never not preparing for Tyson to play,” Ray said. “From Tyson’s standpoint, he’s probably our best communicator on the floor right now.”

At point guard, Ray said he’s seen both positives and negatives from athletic freshman Craig Sword, who is projected as a starter on Friday night.

One of Ray’s favorite coaching phrases is “penetrate and kick,” and in his motion offense, that starts with the point guard. In that regard, Sword has been shown both talent and growing pains as he playing point guard for the first time.

“I don’t think there’s a team we play that will be able to stop him getting into the lane,” Ray said. “It’s his decision making once he gets there.”

Looking ahead to Troy, Ray said MSU’s so-far-underwhelming defense will be put to the test against a Trojan team which has the ability to do what Ray wants his offense doing: penetrating.

The trouble with that, junior guard Jalen Steele said, is Troy can’t beat you on the outside, too.

“They have a bunch of shooters,” Steele said. “We have to close out high on them and try to stop their drive. If they get in the paint a lot of time during that game it’s going to be hard to stop them. Once they get in the paint they kick it out and the shooter’s going to knock it down.”

The game tips off at 7 p.m. Friday night, and MSU’s game notes list a projected starting lineup of Sword, Steele, Fred Thomas, Roquez Johnson and Wendell Lewis.

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