In the spring of 2012, a Mississippi State basketball team with relative preseason promise limped to the finish, dropping out of the SEC Tournament in the first round and exiting the NIT two hours after it started, losing the season finale in the invitational’s first round.
Shortly after, Rick Stansbury stepped down from his long-held post as head coach and by the time his replacement was hired, nearly every player who had seen meaningful minutes was out the door.
The initial outlook for first-time head coach Rick Ray was, at the least, not great. Then, injuries ravaged his team as the first campaign neared and ultimately began, dropping his squad to as few as six available scholarship players at times, with a mix of suspensions over the course of that first season as Ray established a new culture both on the court and off.
All but three of the players he had were seeing game action at the Division I level for the first time, and of those three, two weren’t able to finish the season due to injury (and both have since left the program) while the third had his collegiate experience counted in minutes, not hours, having barely played his freshman year.
That Ray and his staff won 10 games in that season, getting their 10th win at the very end in the SEC Tournament, is a testament to their job as coaches.
Now, in year two, Ray’s Bulldogs have already matched that win total and the SEC portion of the schedule hasn’t even begun.
“I hope so, but now, if we’re sitting at 10 wins two months from now, it probably doesn’t say much about the progress of the program,” Ray joked. “But I really think it does. It’s a milestone, I think, when you get to 10 wins and you had 10 wins all of last season.”
To be sure, the non-conference schedule this season was more manageable than the last, at least from an RPI standpoint, but it hasn’t been without tough opponents or impressive wins, either.
The early jump in success is largely a result of the development of players, both individual and as a team, as freshman point guard IJ Ready was the only significant contributor in MSU’s 10th win this year who wasn’t on the team last year.
After that first season, Ray and his staff finally had a full and comfortable offseason with their players, one where guys like Gavin Ware dropped weight and others like Fred Thomas and Craig Sword gained some needed pounds. They shaped their bodies as well as their games, finally having a chance to work on things after their whirlwind first season.
Ray has said before that the biggest jump a player will make is from their first year to second, and with the number of first-year players he had last season, maybe the improvement to this point should have been anticipated.
Senior forward Colin Borchert, a junior college transfer who arrived in 2012, scored 22 points in the Bulldogs’ 10th win, along with five rebounds and five assists, one of the best games he’s had in his short career at MSU.
A night like that, he believes, is an example of why his team has improved so much.
“It just shows how much we’ve grown as players,” Borchert said. “Last year we were younger and didn’t have a lot of bodies and this year we’re kinda in the same spot, but we have no complaints. Coach Ray is doing a fantastic job coaching us and making sure we’re ready for each and every game. That’s the biggest thing, is us being out there and being ready.”
Borchert echoed his coach, though, saying this early double-digit milestone means very little if they don’t build on it, something Ray made a point of in the locker room after his Bulldogs took care of Maryland Eastern Shore.
“I talked to our guys about that,” Ray said. “Now, we’ve gotta see what we do from this point on. We’ve gotta go out and compete against SEC foes.”
With a team stocked with young talent and starting to jell, the potential is certainly there.
A freshman All-SEC selection last year, Ware has notched five double-doubles and had a career night his last time out, racking up 21 points and 16 rebounds alongside Borchert’s big performance.
Meanwhile, Sword, who had a five-game, 102-point stretch rivaling any in the SEC this season, had a quiet game, only scoring three points and taking three total shots.
The key, as Borchert pointed out, is that each has developed, each has become a better player over the course of the last year and change, forming a team dependent on each other as a group, not any one individual.
Someone like Thomas, a guy who is naturally a volume shooter, has been one of MSU’s best assets on defense. Ready’s presence and Trivante Bloodman’s experience have cut down on turnovers. Everyone has a role and most, if not all, seem to have embraced the style of their coach.
What this team looks like by season’s end is up to them and certainly not definite.
But the progress is clear and the demeanor of the group after reaching 10 wins already is one of a team uncaring and oblivious to where any anyone picked them to finish or what those around college basketball may think of them.
“It just boosts our confidence,” Ware said after their most recent win. “It helps us out going into SEC play. Our confidence level, intensity and competitiveness are high.”