As the month of March draws to a close, so has Rick Ray’s first season as Mississippi State’s basketball coach.
Boy, what a season it was.
Mixed amongst the lows of injuries, suspensions and losses were the highs of SEC wins, a surprisingly successful final stretch run and a huge turnout by students for an equally big victory over Ole Miss.
Sure, the losses column mounted a bit too high for his liking, but looking past records and final scores, the head coach of the Bulldogs saw a lot to like.
Namely, he saw his players – and his team – get better, even if final results didn’t always show it.
MSU even ended up with two freshmen – Gavin Ware and Craig Sword – on the All-SEC Freshman Team, while Ray said he could’ve made a case for Fred Thomas to make it three.
Having freshmen, plural, honored in such a way, Ray believes, says a lot about his team.
“The only other school to have that was Kentucky,” Ray said. “I’m proud of that fact.”
Sword matured as the season went on, cutting down on turnovers and becoming a more patient and able scorer.
“Chicken continually got better as far as his distribution of the ball,” Ray said.
Thomas came in guns a’blazing, rarely passing an opportunity to get the ball in bucket.
“I think Fred Thomas started to display better shot selection and he’s gonna be a good player for us,” Ray said.
Junior college transfer Colin Borchert went from a role guy off to the bench to one of MSU’s best players in the final run of the season.
“I think you saw Colin Borchert become that skilled kind of scoring player for us,” Ray said.
After Dee Bost graduated and freshman Jacoby Davis’ season ended form injury, the Bulldogs were down to just one point guard, a guy who expected to be just a role player in his first year.
“Trivante Bloodman was really a worrisome part for us at the beginning of the season and he became rock-solid,” Ray said.
Even the walk-ons, who were forced into action after the rash of injuries, went from wide-eyed to reliable.
“Tyson Cunningham went from a walk-on to a guy who became a dependable role player,” Ray said.
And finally, Roquez Johnson, the only healthy holdover from the previous season, became the high-energy, hustle player Ray knew he was from the start.
“I think Roquez Johnson accepted who he is,” Ray said. “After the suspension he realized what his role is.”
When Athletic Director Scott Stricklin was looking for a new coach at this time last year, player development was near the top of his list of desired traits.
Early returns suggest Ray delivered on that particular need.
Of course, not all is sunshine after a sub-.500 season.
Ray still sees plenty to work on.
Most importantly, he said, he wants his team to get tougher.
Visibly disgusted as he talked about it, Ray deplored the way the Bulldogs got pushed around by Tennessee in the SEC Tournament.
“Our biggest thing is the strength and conditioning … This will be the first true offseason for our kids and we’ve gotta take advantage of that,” Ray said. “I just don’t like the fact that we got pushed around in that game against Tennessee.”
On the upside, Ray thought his guys played harder than nearly every team they faced.
The downside: harder did not regularly equate to smarter and tougher.
More “needs improvement” areas for Ray are rebounding and assist-to-turnover ratio.
For much of the season, MSU was at the bottom of the league in that ratio, something Ray continually harped on.
“We’re just not giving ourselves a chance to score and win games if we’re gonna be that bad with the basketball,” he said.
Through the negatives, however, Ray constantly remained positive. He had his down moments, to be sure, but both he and the players remained upbeat. Many of them in their first season, maybe they didn’t know any better.
Or, perhaps, the motivation came from Ray.
“As the leader of this program, you’re running a program,” he said. “Guys look to you. If you show weakness, then your team is gonna show weakness.”
Looking to the future, Ray is excited, if nothing else, to be able to practice the way he wants to.
He’ll finally have enough bodies in practice to run his favorite drills. For the first time, he’ll have the proper resources the coach the way he wants to.
He can run the fast-paced, “flowing” offense he talked about when he first got to Starkville.
With a full bench of subs, Ray will actually be able to bring players out of the game during teaching moments, rather than having to leave them in and hope for the best.
Next year, Ray goes from one point guard to three. From two men in the post to four. His depth at the guard spots takes a huge boost and his players will have had a full offseason in his system.
He’s excited. But he also hopes his team doesn’t get complacent.
“The one thing I’m gonna tell our guys is don’t make assumptions. Don’t assume that just because we’ll have more guys we’ll be a better team,” Ray said. “Don’t assume that just because you’re a year older you’re gonna be better … The first thing our guys need to realize is there’s gonna be competition for minutes.”
Luckily, Ray said, he never had players become disgruntled from a lack of playing time. With a full roster, they’ll have to maintain the positive mentality while fighting for minutes.
But that’s a good thing.
“Competition is gonna push each guy to get better,” Ray said.
Ray’s first year may have felt much longer than that, but looking behind him with a steady eye on the future, MSU’s coach is pretty optimistic.
“Overall, I’m happy with the product we have on our team and I think we have a bright future,” Ray said.