Be it Spring Break, Thanksgiving holidays or a full Christmas vacation, college students tend to find themselves in need of some rest and time to get their heads right.
Rick Ray’s student-athletes have happened upon a similar need, but in the thick of the SEC basketball schedule, they don’t have the option for a week or two of home cookin’ and friendly faces.
What Mississippi State does have, though, is a two-game home stretch against teams outside the upper tier of the conference, an opportunity Ray hopes his Bulldogs will use to get their minds – as well as record – back on track.
“We gotta get healthy again as far as how we feel about ourselves and how we feel about our team,” Ray said.
In a humbling loss to Florida, as well as a couple games before that, Ray said his players lost the same attitude they had which got them off to a hot start in the SEC. Playing Texas A&M tonight and LSU on Saturday, his team has to regain that mental edge.
“I thought we lacked some enthusiasm, and more importantly, I didn’t really feel like our guys thought we could win that game,” Ray said of the loss to UF. “I think they had to believe in themselves. In order for us to be successful, we’ve gotta believe in ourselves and I didn’t think we had that against Florida. We’ve gotta get that back.”
Of course, and as Ray said, Florida is one of the best teams in the country and, according to him, “by far” the best in the SEC. But while the odds may have been against MSU, Ray knows the game is already lost if his players go in expecting to not win.
Gavin Ware said the problem began with their first SEC loss, against Alabama, when losing led to relapses of issues from the beginning of the season, and those relapses led to a drop in confidence.
“One thing coach pointed out was when we won the first two SEC games, then we lost the next one, we went back to our old habits, the way we played early in the season,” Ware said. “He was like, ‘Now is not the time because we’re in SEC play and we’ve gotta build upon what we already know.’”
And while MSU(7-11, 2-4) has twice as many conference losses as it does wins, a good showing (and a victory) against the Aggies (12-7, 2-4) could help get the Bulldogs back on track, both mentally and in the SEC standings. Suppose Ray’s squad were to win tonight, then follow it up with another victory Saturday, all of the sudden the Bulldogs find themselves in a severely improved spot.
And that’s what Ray is trying to explain to his team.
“First and foremost is showing the standings in the SEC,” Ray said. “I think there’s seven teams at 2-4. So if we can get these two wins at home, we’re right back in the thick of being in the upper tier of the SEC and don’t lose sight of that, besides the lopsided losses we’ve had here recently.”
A large part of the problem for MSU in its skid has been finding itself in games which don’t fit the style the Bulldogs can play successfully. Ray has said before his team can’t win games in the 70s or 80s and has both publicly and privately implored his team to make a return to smart, defensive basketball, rather than a selfish version focused on offense.
“I think the other thing is just showing some of the college basketball scores,” he said. “I think Wisconsin beat Minnesota 44-43. Things like that. Like, ‘Hey, you can win basketball games when you’re not having the greatest opportunity to score the basketball.’ We’ve gotta use examples of what’s going on in college basketball and where we are in the SEC to make our guys feel good about, hey, we can go do some things the rest of the season.”
Things like transition offense, scoring in the paint, perimeter defense and working the shot clock are all just as important as ever, and individual player development is certainly a season-long process as Ray says his youngsters are “trying to grow up in front of everybody” while also being the leaders of the team.
But, for now, at least, the primary concern is singular.
“The way we carry ourselves on and off the court,” Ware said. “We’ve gotta come together. Just players only, we’ve gotta come together and find the chemistry that we had when we won those first two SEC games. It’s selfishness on all of us, but we just have to put it all out on the table and just learn from it.”