Today marks the start of year three for Rick Ray at Mississippi State when his Bulldogs host Western Carolina at 5:30 on college basketball’s opening day.
Tonight, even without two starters who are two of his better players, Ray will showcase for the first time the kind of basketball he envisioned when he was hired to take over MSU’s program.
He has to be tired of the constant questions about the roster mess he inherited, a offseason mix of transfers, injuries, graduates and early-entry NBA hopefuls. But Ray doesn’t show it, politely and intelligently answering the questions, which all go in some variation of the same query.
How does it feel to actually have a full roster for the first time?
Well, he can actually make substitutions now. That’s a nice change.
“The unique thing about our team,” Ray said, “is when we sub we actually get longer, quicker and more athletic.”
In years past, the only time MSU had enough bodies for more than one lineup was in practice when assistant coaches and managers put on jerseys.
The other nice thing for Ray is that he’s got quality subs, too. As he jokes, he’s had to send in a 6-foot walk-on to guard future NBA Lottery picks in the past. Nothing against those guys, of course, but that’s about the perfect example of the knife brought to a gunfight.
Ray saw the change, the presence of depth, in MSU’s exhibition last week.
“There was no one,” he said afterward, “that didn’t deserve minutes.”
Just watching the game, there was hardly any dropoff from the starters to the next group in. The fact there even is a next group in is nice, let alone that they’re good. The infusion of talent happened quickly, too. No longer just depending on the trio of Craig Sword, Fred Thomas and Gavin Ware, Ray has a whole bench full of playmakers.
Shooters and drivers, physicality in the post and finesse in the post, mismatches big and small.
But the most important thing, the biggest difference those watching this year will see, is one word: defense.
“That’s all we work on,” Thomas said. “Defense, defense, defense.”
So, when asked if this MSU team is the first who will really display the type of basketball Ray envisioned, that’s where he went.
“I think what you’re referring to is our ability to stretch the defense and use all 90 feet,” Ray said.
Exactly. That’s how he wants to play. Press defense, forcing opposing teams to use the entire court and as much of the shot clock as they can.
The idea is that such a defense turns into an offense on its own, transition buckets off turnovers being the big moneymakers. And in set offenses, MSU has the playmakers to run the motion Ray wants and be effective, as well as dangerous.
“The thing that we’ve been able to see is our practice intensity has maintained a lot longer than it has in the past because we have that depth,” Ray said.
Moreso, he added, there’s actual competition. In the past, if you were healthy, you played. There was little motivation to work harder and get better. Now, with a full compliment of players, your spot can be taken as soon as you slip.
Then there’s also the idea that it’s no longer a one-man show. Or a few-man show, as it were. Having talent surrounded by talent only makes that talent better.
Ware offers power in the post, while Fallou Ndoye now adds the finesse to pair with it. Where Sword and freshman Demetrius Houston are athletic guards who can get to the basket, Thomas and freshman Maurice Dunlap can take the dish on the perimeter and hit big shots. Both are talented defenders, as well. Ray himself said he expects Thomas to be All-SEC defensive team by year’s end.
Then there’s junior Travis Daniels, who MSU hasn’t had anyone like. He starts at three spot, but he’s got enough size to play in the post as a four, as well as enough to skill to bring the ball up the court and fulfill the same duties as any other guard.
He’s got experience point guards in Trivante Bloodman and IJ Ready and a wily veteran in senior forward Roquez Johnson.
For the first time, he’s got the necessary pieces. Now that MSU actually has depth and talent, Ray can’t wait to use it.
“That’s something we want to see,” Ray said. “Continually wear down the other team with our length and size and athleticism.”