In exhibition play, Thursday night was the early screening of the newest sequel of Mississippi State basketball. And even without two of its biggest stars in point guard I.J. Ready and attacking guard Craig Sword, this was one of those instances where the sequel is actually better than original.
In this case, that’s because this version is what the original was supposed to be. I suppose you could say Rick Ray has a bigger budget this time around. That much is clear just seeing his team take the court.
For the first time since he arrived, he’s actually been able to build a full roster. The last two years, if he had three players on the bench it was crippling. Now, it’s hardly noticeable as he’s got an entire team of long, athletic and skilled players.
The key in all this is that Ray, for the first time, is actually going to be able to play the kind of basketball he wants.
Full-court pressing defense, leading to transition offense. Motion offense when situations allow. It’s a pretty straightforward plan: hustle. And he’s finally got enough bodies (and length) for that to be effective for an entire game.
Delta State head coach Jim Boone learned as much when his team fell to the Bulldogs 72-51 Thursday night (and took until there were less than three minutes left in the first half to break double-digits).
The team he played that night was completely different from the one he studied on tape all offseason. Especially on defense.
“Long, athletic, quick. Really gave us problems running our offense,” Boone said. “Very good defensive effort I thought. That’s the biggest difference from what I saw last year.”
Said junior guard Fred Thomas, “That’s what we harp on every day in practice. Defense, defense, defense.”
Much of that had to do with MSU’s size, too. Ray’s roster went from only having a couple people checking in at 6’7” or taller, to now an entire team averaging about that height, with nearly half of them coming in on the over side.
“It’s really refreshing to start the game and you actually have some length,” Ray said, “but more importantly, when you sub, you have some length.”
The quick infusion of talent was obvious Thursday, as some newcomers made strong first impressions.
True freshman guard Demetrius Houston, a 6’7” player himself, showed why Ray said in recent weeks that he might be the most athletic player on the team. His ability to get to the rim matches (and could eventually surpass) that of the junior Sword, and he shot surprisingly well on Thursday, too, scoring 12 points and hitting a perfect 2-for-2 from the three-point line.
Junior swingman Travis Daniels, while he seemed a bit nervous in his first game in well over a year, showed the advertised size and skill, a 6’8” guard comfortable both bringing the ball up the court and taking on big men in the post.
Forward Fallou Ndoye (11 points, four rebounds, three blocks) looked like the perfect compliment to Gavin Ware in the post.
And oh yeah, Gavin Ware. Or, as he said it, the New and Improved Gavin Ware.
Looking slimmer and more energized, Ware racked up 19 points in as many minutes, hitting nine of his 13 shots and dominating the game.
“I’m more in shape, more fit, more able to help my team be successful in the long run,” he said. “I think this is the new and improved Gavin Ware.”
One of the most important things for his success, both Ware and Ray said, is having players around him to take the pressure off of MSU’s talented man in the post. Having other actual bodies in the paint, having guards who can drive, shoot or pass, in short, having other threats on the floor, makes a world of difference for the team, especially Ware.
“He’s got moves,” Ray said, “legitimate post moves. When you give him time and space to make post moves, he’s pretty effective.”
It helps too, Ray said, that Ware has developed a nice a mid-range shot, being able to hit 15-17 footers if given space.
“He’s really good,” Boone said. “I told him after the game, I love the way he plays. He’s very physical, but he’s got a really soft touch around the bucket.”
The schedule will certainly get more difficult as the season goes along, but a team as young as MSU will only get better, especially when it gets two of its big-time starters back.
But even without those guys, Ray’s got them feeling good.
“Coming back on the floor, smelling the hotdogs and popcorn, you just felt like it was game time and we brought it,” Ware said.