If you gave Rick Ray three wishes, his first one, naturally, would be for more players.
But in this dream scenario, such a request doesn’t count, like wishing for unlimited wishes.
Following a 2-0 start to SEC play, Mississippi State is now on the bad end of a two-game skid in the conference.
Plenty of factors have been involved, but Ray has singled out two things his team can do to get back to its winning ways.
“One is, we’ve gotta keep our post guys from getting in foul trouble early,” Ray said.
MSU has so few bodies as it is, but its depth in the post is almost non-existent with only three big men to play in the paint. When his forwards pick up fouls early, that weakness is exposed further as it limits what they players can do.
With Ray’s aggressive style of defense and penetration-heavy offensive scheme, fouls aren’t always easy to avoid. Certainly, if he had more players the fouls would be spread out.
Even at the guard position, freshman Craig Sword leads the conference in foul outs, due in large part to driving the paint and physical defense. He also leads all freshmen in scoring in SEC play, despite spending more time than Ray finds necessary on the bench.
The second thing Ray needs from his team? Not to sound like John Madden, but it’s pretty straightforward.
“I just think the other team is scoring too many points,” Ray said. “We had success when we held teams in the 50s, now they’re in the 70s.”
It’s not as easy as “Hey, go score more points than them,” but it speaks to the strengths and weaknesses of the team.
As Ray elaborated, MSU doesn’t have the consistency on offense to keep up in high-scoring games. On occasional nights, sure, but not on a regular basis.
Ray said he was impressed Sword was able to score 10 points despite only playing 19 minutes against Tennessee, and actually said it should’ve been 14, noting the freshman missed a pair of shots he usually makes.
But if Sword fouls out, he can’t be depended on for scoring.
Forwards Colin Borchert, Gavin Ware and Roquez Johnson have all shown flashes of scoring prowess, whether in the paint or on the perimeter, but the trio combined to make only 4-of-22 shots against the Vols.
Freshman guard Fred Thomas did have one of his better outings, going 4-of-9, including 2-for-3 behind the arc, but he’s had just as many games where shoots 1-9.
Thomas said Monday morning he’s been going into the Mize Pavillion practice facility on his own as late as 2 a.m. to put up extra shots, around 200 per week, he says. No surprise that Thomas is shooting a lot.
“Fred definitely doesn’t have any fear,” Ray said with a smile. “He just sometimes needs to shot-fake and drive by people and pull up.”
Again, getting to the lane is key, and something he likes to see Sword do. Ray just needs better decisions by the athletic guard once he gets there.
“He’s a problem for the other team because of his penetration ability,” Ray said. “He’s just gotta stop gambling.”
Of course, the steady hand since he returned has been Jalen Steele, the top offensive player for MSU despite coming off of injury. The junior has been the focal point of other team’s defensive efforts, though he’s still managed to find success, leading the team with 15 points against UT Saturday.
As impressive as anything has been not Steele’s known ability to hit threes, but his progression as a player and his newfound ability to – what else? – drive the lane.
“With Jalen, people play him as a shooter,” Ray said. “He’s gotta have the ability to drive and get to the lane.”
A common theme is emerging here. MSU’s game can’t take place behind the three-point line. Whether it’s guards or forwards, Ray wants the ball hitting the paint. If it goes back out to the perimeter from there, that’s great, he says, but it starts with penetration.
The offense certainly has potential, and the defense has shown what it can do.
Thomas, a big fan of shooting, still agrees with his coach. Defense is key, and guys can’t get themselves into trouble.
“We’re playing some great defense, but a couple guys are just fouling too quick and it brings the intensity down,” he said. “If we stop fouling we’ll be in pretty good shape.”