Back in the preseason, and even a ways into the start of his first season, Rick Ray jokingly referred to the way his players were learning his motion offense as “motion sickness.”
But finally, something clicked.
After a break for the holidays, Ray’s Mississippi State team hit the floor of The Hump on Dec. 30th and “played the best 15 minutes of the season,” according to the head coach.
The problem was the remaining 25, as the Bulldogs hit a massive scoring drought and ended up dropping the contest to Alabama A&M in a game they had once led by as much as 15.
Ray referred to the outcome of the game as a “public embarrassment,” but redemption came.
Against New Orleans on Jan 3rd, Ray said his team finally turned the proverbial corner.
The result: 97 points, nearly 20 more than the season high and close to 40 points higher than their average as State dropped the Privateers 97-46 in, by far, its best game of the season.
Sure, New Orleans isn’t exactly a powerhouse. But Ray believes the turnaround was due to workings of their own, not their opponent’s.
He saw signs in those opening minutes against Alabama A&M.
“It was a shame we ended up with a loss, because everybody in the locker room knew we had gotten better during that semester break individually and as a team,” Ray said. “For us to come out and play the way we did against New Orleans, it was good for our guys. They got a chance to see all their hard work come to fruition with the win.”
The hard work over the break was, honestly, pretty straightforward.
The Bulldogs were taking more shots in practice.
During the break, they had plenty of time, both as a team and as individuals, to spend quality minutes in the gym. Ray made sure that time was spent almost exclusively on getting into rhythm shooting the ball. For everybody.
The result? Better shooting, and more specifically, nearing triple-digits against UNO.
“I don’t think it was that we just had this breakthrough shooting the basketball,” Ray said. “I think it was just our guys getting up extra shots, so now you’re seeing a direct correlation to those guys shooting the basketball well in the game. “
Another huge factor, of course, is the return of junior guard and sharp-shooter Jalen Steele, who had been out with a broken wrist until the loss to A&M.
However, Ray said it’s not just the shots Steele makes that help so much.
With Steele on the floor, it opens up the paint for forwards Gavin Ware and Roquez Johnson, two of MSU’s top scoring threats, and spreading out the defense also allows room for guards to penetrate the lane and either get to the basket or draw attention to open someone else up for a jumper.
“I think what people get lost in is he provides scoring, but he’s gonna help other people score, too, because now there’s no spacing,” Ray said. “So now you’ve got more room to drive the basketball, more room to operate in the paint.”
Even beyond game action, MSU is just happy to have Steele back because he’s another body in practice, where State is down to so few players it has managers and assistant coaches practicing like they’re 21-year old student athletes.
In addition to a warm body, Ray said, Steele is an example the younger players can look to, saying his approach to basketball and his effort in practice are what he wants from his full team.
“It helps a lot,” point guard Trivante Bloodman said. “He brings a lot of energy. He’s real vocal.”
Said Ware, on Steele’s return, “it just provided more chemistry and structure.”
Finally, junior forward Colin Borchert said, things are just better for everyone with Steele around.
“The offense is a lot more crisp,” he said. “A lot of guys know Jalen Steele, and we’re all new. It just opens up the court.”
As the shots have started to fall and with a boost from Steele, the full picture has started to click for Ray’s Bulldogs, both offensively and defensively.
“Our willingness to share the basketball more and work the shot clock more has been our biggest step that we’ve taken offensively,” Ray said.
More specifically, he sees his team playing – and shooting – smarter.
“Our guys stopped taking bad shots,” Ray said. “I think we were taking contested threes. I don’t have any problem with our guys taking threes, I just don’t want them taking contested threes when they have the ability to shot-fake and drive to make a play.”
On defense? Well, kind of the same thing, he said. Being smart and remaining patient.
“Our willingness to make sure that we grind out the shot clock on the defensive end, too, and make sure that everybody is not giving up any sort of open looks early in the shot clock,” Ray said. “That’s a bad deal for our defense. I think those two things.”
It took some time, but Ray’s style is finally starting to settle in at MSU.
Just in time, too, as the Bulldogs begin SEC play tonight when they host South Carolina at The Hump.