Two weeks into January, Rick Ray has the SEC’s Freshman of the Week, an undefeated record in the conference and a multi-game winning streak.
All that, when just before the New Year, Mississippi State was hobbling along and had lost to Alabama A&M.
That loss, however, was when the turnaround started. “Embarrassing” as it was, according to Ray, the first 15 minutes were the best his Bulldogs had played all season. It would seem he was right after MSU dropped New Orleans in the next game with its biggest offensive output of the season.
When SEC play started, not only did the improved play continue, but so did the winning.
Victories over South Carolina and Georgia have MSU in a place most didn’t believe they could be: at the top of the SEC.
“Guys feel really good about themselves,” Ray said. “As much as you try to say kids don’t pay attention to the media and the internet, they know they’ve been picked to be last in the SEC. They’ve heard the things like, we’re not gonna win an SEC ball game or we’re gonna win five games for the whole season.”
The Bulldogs have already exceeded two of those expectations, but how?
Much of it has to do with the return of Jalen Steele, but plenty more has clicked for Ray’s bunch.
Nothing huge, but a myriad of small things have combined to get the Bulldogs back in business. It’s in the details.
For one, Ray said, the assist-to-turnover ratio has improved steadily. It’s still not where he wants it, but just a few less turnovers and a few more assists per game can give his team as a double-digit swing.
“We’re still nowhere near where we’d like our team to be at at this point in time,” Ray said, “but if you look at the statistics, our assists continue to come up and our turnovers are going down. When we do those things, that’s a good predicator of how we’re gonna do offensively.”
MSU has improved significantly on the offensive end in the recent stretch of winning, much of which has to do with poise, experience and, basically, staying calm.
As the Bulldogs have settled down and turned the ball over less, the patience has turned into more success on the scoring end of the floor.
In particular, Ray says, his team has not just started shooting the ball better, but it has shot the ball smarter.
“Toward the beginning of the season, I thought our guys were taking contested threes, but I felt like, in the last few games, they’ve been taking good three-point shots,” Ray said. “So to see those guys have success with the three-point shot, it bodes well for hopefully some confidence the rest of the season.”
Again, the patience is key. Ray said his team has remained level-headed throughout possessions, allowing the shot clock to continue ticking in exchange for finding an open shot, rather than forcing the first somewhat-open look they get.
“When the shot clock started winding down, our guys didn’t panic,” Ray said. “They continued to cut and screen and move. They saw things happen late in the shot clock because of that reason.”
Much of the improvement has to do with maturing, though plenty of credit has been given to Steele. His return opens up the floor tremendously for his teammates on offense.
When opposing teams focus on Steele, it opens up the lane for Craig Sword to drive, the perimeter for Fred Thomas to shoot and the paint for Gavin Ware to work around the rim.
And when Steele drives, he says, entire defenses flock to him, giving him plenty of opportunities to kick the ball out to an open teammate for an open shot.
“It’s a big difference,” Steele said of his return to the offense. “It really helps them out.”
Of course, it’s not all offense. Not hardly, to hear the players talk.
In Sword’s words, “Defense is all we do in practice.”
It seems to be working, though, and not just from a scoring perspective. Another reason for the turnaround, Ray said, is fouls. His team is drawing them in bunches, while committing them far less often than the opposition, once again giving the head coach the positive ratio he’s looking for.
More impressive than anything, perhaps, is how stingy State’s defense has been with so few players available. It’s easy enough to be active in the first half, but with limited bodies and lots of minutes, MSU has kept the defensive pressure going for entire games.
“They don’t have much of a choice,” Ray joked. “That’s all we do. We practice defense … I can’t hold guys accountable with playing time and things like that, but if you’re not willing to play defense and be tough, you’re probably not gonna play. Our guys have a mindset right now that defense is the most important thing.”
Of course, winning is pretty important, too, and the Bulldogs have been doing just that. They’ll go for four in a row on Wednesday night at 8 when they host Alabama at The Hump.