As bad as things may get, there is always a silver lining, a ray of hope, or at the very least, something encouraging.
Rick Ray now has a couple of good things set in his future, even if the present of Mississippi State’s basketball team is in a tough spot losing two of its top players.
Here’s the more immediate plus: Jalen Steele will be back soon. The junior guard had the cast removed from his wrist and is cleared for non-contact action. He won’t play Saturday in Jackson, but he could be back as soon as December 30th in Starkville, Ray says, a quicker return than most expected. That would give him two games before MSU opens conference play against South Carolina on January 9th in The Hump.
In the more distant future, MSU was already going to have – literally – double the depth on its roster this time next year compared to now, and it may get an even bigger boost.
Senior forward Wendell Lewis had knee surgery Wednesday and is likely out for the season. It’s a huge hit now, especially as Lewis had seemingly turned a corner in his final two games before the injury, but here’s the upside: Lewis played in few enough games, he’s eligible for a medical redshirt. It’s up to him whether or not he returns in 2013-14, but the option is there for the big man.
While many in Ray’s position might want to usher him back as soon as possible this year (he’s out at least six weeks, possibly more), Ray said he’d rather do what’s best for Lewis and his future.
“I think the best thing for Wendell would be to medically redshirt,” Ray said. “It allows him to build some sort of a resume to play professional basketball.”
Considering Lewis has started, almost literally, only a handful of games, a full season of tape and progress could go a long way in his desire to play professionally.
Of course, Ray said it’s not a simple yes or no. Ray said Lewis must be committed to the program, to the coaches and to the team.
“It can’t just be, ‘I hurt my knee and I wanna come back and play basketball,’” Ray said. “You’ve gotta be all in.”
The decision will ultimately be up to Lewis, but Ray said he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if made the “selfish” decision of forcing Lewis back early simply to try and win another game or two this season.
Of course, the absence of Lewis and the soon-to-end hiatus of Steele has left MSU in a tough place.
Against Loyola over the weekend, Ray found himself in a situation with two players in foul trouble in the first half. That’s quite the predicament when you’ve got six scholarship players available, and only two walk-ons.
With two starters sidelined, Loyola was in the process of making a 20-0 run and MSU needed a way to stop it.
“You have to make a decision,” Ray said, “do you put those guys back out there and let them get their third foul, or do you let that run continue?”
Ultimately, Ray sent his players back out. The run ended and, luckily, so did the fouls.
The lack of depth would hurt any team, but as Ray said, MSU is not built to be shallow. Ideally, he said, everyone would be playing around 30 minutes per game, if not less, instead of the near-40 many of them are averaging now.
Ray’s style of play is one which requires constant movement and energy, both on offense and defense.
“I think the way we play basketball is the hardest way to play, condition-wise,” Ray said. “I don’t know if you can play basketball the way we want to play at your maximum for 35 minutes.”
Though junior forward Colin Borchert said the depth can’t be an excuse. After all, he pointed, even national championship teams generally only play seven or eight guys regularly.
Borchert thinks the guys on the floor just have to play better. More specifically, he said, they have to hit shots, which they have struggled with at times this season.
But again, that’s where depth has become an issue for Ray. If a player makes a mistake, Ray would prefer to sub him out, not as a punishment, but so he can teach. Instead, a freshman or transfer is forced to play it out on the court because there aren’t enough bodies to substitute someone every time Ray would like.
“We’ve been able to hold guys off the court accountable, but we haven’t been able to hold them accountable on the court,” Ray said.
It’s less than ideal, but it’s the situation Ray must work with. And it’s a fluke situation.
Ray he doesn’t know if he’s “ever seen something like this,” where three different players are lost for the season due to non-contact injuries. Lewis, as well as freshmen Jacoby Davis and Andre Applewhite, all suffered their knee injuries in practice in non-contact situations. They didn’t get hit. They didn’t fall funny in a game (though Steele did). They just randomly went down.
But Ray has to keep looking up. And he has to get the most out of those he has left.
“We play hard, and I think that’s such a big deal around here, but you should play hard,” Ray said.