It took longer than Rick Ray wanted, but something has gotten into his team lately. Mississippi State’s basketball team started the season strong, but soon fell into a slump lasting up until, roughly, a week ago.
After starting the season 5-0, MSU went on a tough 2-9 stretch before seemingly righting the ship. But the resurgence actually began in the ninth and final loss of the midseason slump, a game the Bulldogs dropped on the road at Texas A&M.
Sure, they didn’t win, and it extended their road losing streak (now snapped) by even more, but Ray has been saying ever since his Bulldogs returned from the Lone Star State that something clicked with them in that loss. One thing, he said, is that they realized they could compete and play against a good team, losing a close 74-70 game. The other is that they finally got whatever was in their heads out and played loose and confident again.
The result of that game – losing – was not indicative of the reaction the team had to it, he said. Since then, State has won two-straight SEC games and snapped a two-year road losing streak in the process.
Most recently, MSU downed Auburn 78-71 on the road Wednesday night.
“We did what we wanted to do defensively in the first half,” Ray said. “In the second half, it got away from us for a little while. We knew they would put their head down and drive and it is hard to defend a team playing out of desperation. But we came out with a sense of urgency ourselves and really played with the mind-set and mental toughness we needed to play with to win a game on the road in this league.”
Beyond confidence and comfort, the catalysts as MSU has suddenly looked like the team Ray expected them to be all year have been junior forward Gavin Ware and sophomore point guard I.J. Ready.
In particular, Ready has looked like the team MVP, there being a noticeable difference when he’s on the court or off. In the last three games, Ready has amassed 47 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists. With Craig Sword still not 100 percent after offseason surgery, Ready has taken the mantle as the Bulldog responsible for creating offense.
“Gavin had a great night and did the things that we need him to do every night,” Ray said.
Ware has stepped up and become both the presence in the post and the leader of the team that Ray needs him to be, both of which he made a concerted effort in the offseason to improve on as much as possible.
As for Ready, Ray says “I.J. is such a calming, steady influence out there. You know he is going to make the plays you need him to make.”
That presence, the charisma and his confidence are the things that had Ray excited when he initially signed Ready out of high school two years ago. As Ray put it then, Ready knows how to win.
The entire team, it seems like, has been a series of cogs in a system that just needed something or someone to push it into action. The success of Ready and Ware has opened things up for guys like Travis Daniels, Fred Thomas and Sword to start getting significant stat lines.
The strong defense has finally started leading to easy offense, like Ray had been wanting it to for so long.
One success has led to another has led to another has led to another and it looks like MSU has broken the slump and started playing the kind of basketball they knew they were capable of for so long.
When Georgia comes to Starkville Saturday afternoon, State will have a chance to make it three-straight. They call that a winning streak.