Falling down might be a mild description for what Mississippi State (1-4) has endured getting their season underway. A week in Hawaii saw the Bulldogs knocked down by quality competition with losses to North Carolina, Marquette, and Texas. None of which was a surprise as State, which soon will have ‘short-handed' practically as part of the name, had just eight available bodies for the Maui Invitational.
There will at least be nine Bulldogs dressed out tomorrow evening when State hosts Alcorn State (2-4) in a 7:00 meeting. "We're looking forward to coming back to the Hump and paying in front of a home crowd," Coach Rick Ray said. For only the second time this season at that. And the Bulldogs' victory to-date came in Humphrey Coliseum back on November 13 against Florida Atlantic.
What Ray and team might anticipate more right now is adding another to the active roster. Forward Colin Borchert was on the Hawaii trip but not playing as he served a three-game suspension. Still a more notable name will be out of action for a while longer. Guard Jalen Steele is sidelined at least until the start of SEC season with his ankle injury suffered early in the Florida Atlantic win.
So the Bulldogs have gotten accustomed to a very variable roster each week. In fact, that included their head coach last week when a stomach bug put Ray on a later flight to the Islands. "I didn't realize he wasn't on the flight until we got on the bus," Bloodman said. "Whoa, a couple of guys are missing! But we were alright."
In terms of effort yes, Mississippi State was alright by Ray's standards; he was able to rejoin the club for the three games and not infect anyone in the process. The physical toll of playing three-straight days was more than tough enough already though.
"It was a great experience," freshman point guard Bloodman said. "Even though we had a couple of losses, and we didn't have enough players. But we played as hard as we can and we came back working to get ready."
"There were some positives," Ray said. "I think we played hard. There was not one game our guys laid-over and quit, and you could have done that with some of the holes we got into in the first half." The coach wasn't kidding as State trailed 49-17, 48-27, and 38-20 at the intermissions. Under the circumstances Ray couldn't be overly hard on his limited lineup in some aspects.
"The biggest thing I take away from it is our guys truly in seeing the type of competition we're going to see at the highest level. A lot of times in practice we're going against assistant coaches or a manager in there and we don't get a true feel. Now Gavin (Ware) sees he can't just turn that shoulder and shoot. Craig Sword understands he can't just go shoot it, he has to jump-stop and look behind him." And so on through a group of guys getting a scalding baptism in the college game.
Bloodman, one of the true freshmen taking on a role beyond his years now due to injuries, did take some intangibles away from the week far from home and thrown on their own, limited, resources. "I think it brought us a lot closer. We went against better competition and it brought us together."
This didn't mean the play was as ‘together' as Ray wants even at this early stage. "I was disappointed with the performance. Not so much the wins and losses, but the three things we want to do." One of those, effort, the coach was satisfied with."
The other two, not really.
"I don't think we played tougher than the other team. That's pretty evident by the rebounding and the second chance points on the boards," Ray said. For that matter a shorter State squad lost the board-battle at each end by an average six per-game. But, "The thing most concern to me is playing smarter than the other team. We continually put ourselves in the hole by turning the ball over." Though in the third game State had fewer giveaways than Texas, 18 to 22. So some progress was made, just not enough for a Bulldog team with no margin for error.
"We were a negative two-to-one, it should be the other way around, a positive two-to-one," said Ray. Meaning not only do the Dogs need to take better care of the ball but start forcing more mistakes. It's a challenge for an all-freshman backcourt at this stage though, especially with Steele absent.
"I know we've got a young, inexperienced team," Ray said. "But the worst thing you can do is turn the ball over to the other team." After that is allow putback points. Ray said the coaching staff is trying some practice situations to improve these weaknesses. "But the most important thing is our guys understand we don't have a chance to win if we don't get the ball off the glass and take care of the ball."
Then again as player and coach alike noted, simply practicing is something of a challenge now without being able to go fully five-on-five. "We do have managers and we go against them," Bloodman said. "We're real competitive in practice so we just try to get each other better."
One encouraging point is the progress by forward Roquez Johnson, who has scored double-digits in all four games played including 18 against Texas. The sophomore is averaging 15.8 for the season on 51% shooting, and after scoring just one points as a freshman reserve has 62 more than that this season.
By contrast center Wendell Lewis is struggling as a senior starter, scoring 5.8 on 41% shooting. "It's pretty obvious he has to step up his play," Ray said. "I think against Texas he was 1-of-8 from the field and had several shots blocked. Wendell has to finish those opportunities."
State has gotten a boost off the bench though as freshman center Gavin Ware nets 9.4 points and is a positive force on the boards at 6.8. His shooting against the taller Longhorns was not sharp either but Ray said the rookie is learning he has to use real post moves now in college.
"But I'm really pleased with Gavin's progress, he hasn't backed down," said Ray. As to whether Ware could supplant Lewis as first center, that is not of much matter to the coach. "It's such a long season, and I don't get too wrapped-up in starting lineups. Guys are going to play, there are only two centers. They're going to play."
The team State is playing does present the sorts of challenges that the Dogs have issues with so far. "They like to get into the paint with dribble-drive penetration," Ray said. "That's a bit thing we struggle with sometimes as far as not fouling and taking away lanes." And fouls obviously are an issue for a short-benched ball club. Also Ray notes some of the defensive rebound problems spring from teammates helping out on drives and the like.
The series is only five games long but includes both one of the biggest and one of the very worst days in program history. The 120-65 win in December 1990 was the fourth highest-scoring output ever by a Bulldog team. But the 1979 NIT loss, on a last-second rebound shot in Humphrey Coliseum was an all-time low for State fans.
The Bulldogs won't be back home until next Tuesday, hosting Texas-San Antonio on December 4. In-between is a trip to Providence this Saturday as part of the SEC/Big East Challenge.