Late in the second half Saturday, Mississippi State had given up a 12-0 run to Ole Miss. Having led for the majority of the game, the Bulldogs found themselves down five and facing the same problem that had plagued them all year: depth.
Just a few days prior, Rick Ray’s team had the halftime lead at Kentucky, only to lose by double-digits as weariness caught up with his undermanned roster.
At the eight-minute timeout, Ray’s team came to the bench as he worried the same issue was beginning to return.
But instead of the head coach giving a word of encouragement or a quick Xs and Os lesson, his true freshman point guard took over.
“We actually huddled up on our own,” IJ Ready told reporters after the game, “and I said ‘If we get the stop here, somebody will come down and get the bucket.’”
And that’s exactly what happened. Led by Ready, MSU quickly erased the deficit, with Ready himself tying it and junior forward Roquez Johnson hitting the go-ahead free throws, creating a lead the Bulldogs never lost.
MSU went on to beat Ole Miss 76-72 in front of the home crowd.
That it was Ready who led the comeback was of no surprise to anyone on the team. In fact, teammates revealed, Ready regularly calls his own huddles in practice to offer motivation and inspiration.
“He has some attributes,” Ray said of his star youngster, “that are really uncommon for a freshman. His calmness on the court, his ability to not get wrapped up in himself, to continue to think about the team when adversity sets in; he’s just got some things that make him a winner. There’s a calmness to him.”
The leadership and the steady hand are what attracted to Ray to Ready in the first place when he recruited the under-sized point guard out of North Little Rock, Arkansas and the AAU team he played on.
An AAU team, it turns out, where Ready’s dad was the coach.
In the absence of nepotism, Ready said that, if anything, it was more difficult playing for his dad than it would have been for anyone else “because he expects so much out of me.”
The experience, however, of being raised by and later playing for a basketball coach is what instilled the qualities Ray was so fond of when he signed Ready.
The same qualities making him the natural leader when MSU found itself facing, as Ray called it, significant adversity when falling behind to their rival late in the game.
“It’s kind of like being a quarterback,” Ray explained. “You don’t want the quarterback to be a crazy guy who’s all over the place. You want a calm, collected guy, like a Joe Montana, and that’s what IJ is. He’s calm, cool and collected and has been in so many tense moments that it really doesn’t bother him.”
As one story goes, Ray was watching Ready one day in the recruiting process. Early in the game, Ready took a hit to the face and had his nose broken. The coach’s son returned in the second half, broken nose and all, and led his team to a win, only to go on and play another game, once more leading his team both to victory and to the championship.
“That just shows how tough IJ Ready is,” senior forward Colin Borchert said. “He’s very mature for his age, you know. I think his coach in Arkansas expected him to do more, be more mature, and that rolled over to here. That’s why our coach likes him a lot. That’s the reason he recruited him, because he’s so mature, he’s so tough.”
“I do whatever to win,” Ready said with a smile.
Both he and his teammates say they immediately got along when he arrived, developing chemistry almost instantly.
Though it may not all be because he’s nice off the court. It’s his support of teammates on the court that has him as popular as anything.
Against Ole Miss, his 10 points were important, to be sure, but his four assists and willingness to share the ball, to find an open man, were as big as anything.
Despite missing four of MSU’s 15 games, the freshman still leads the team with 38 assists.
“Me scoring,” Ready said, “doesn’t feel as good as me driving to the lane and making a pass for someone to make a three or get a dunk. That gets me going better than me scoring.”
Keeping that attitude – along with his 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio – ought to keep Ready both in the starting lineup and in the favor of his coaches and teammates.