This mid-semester matchup of SEC vs. SWAC might not have caught much attention back when it was scheduled, any more than the January 3 date with New Orleans. In the context of Mississippi State’s (4-6) season though both of these non-conference contests loom large to Coach Rick Ray.
“It’s huge. You want to have some success and momentum going into SEC play. It’s important to protect our home court.”
Defending the friendly confines is something the Bulldogs have done well so far, winning all three true home games by an average of 16 points. And while not a true ‘home’ contest, State’s last action before the short holiday break turned out well with a 79-72 victory in Jackson over Central Arkansas. Though, Ray preferred to treat that one as a ‘road’ game since winning away from home was something new for this team.
“When you’re in a situation like we are getting a win is just important no matter the venue,” Ray said at Jackson a week ago.
The situation referred to is well-known to Bulldog fans. Four members of the pre-season roster have been hit by major injuries, two of them true freshmen even before the schedule began. Then two games-in junior guard Jalen Steele went down with a cracked right wrist. But the biggest blow came in mid-December when lone scholarship senior and the only veteran postman Wendell Lewis fractured his right kneecap in practice.
Lewis has been at home in Selma, Ala., recovering from surgery and while he could return by late February or early March the plan now is for him to redshirt and seek a medical redshirt and fifth varsity season. His loss leaves State without anyone on the baseline who has started a SEC game.
There is some good news at last on the health front. Steele had the cast removed before Christmas and has resumed practicing with the goal of returning for Sunday’s game. The Bulldogs had workouts today and Saturday and how Steele feels in his shooting-hand wrist will be evaluated. But as of now State staff say he can be in the lineup against Alabama A&M, in his shooting guard position.
This is one encouraging development for the battered Bulldogs, especially given the team’s struggles to find reliable outside offense. Before his injury Steele hit 2-of-5 at the arc in the one complete game played. Another positive sign comes much closer to the goal, with freshman Gavin Ware taking up a lot of Lewis’ slack.
In fact, the rookie big guy has been even more productive than the senior was, averaging 9.0 points and 7.1 rebounds with 53.5% shooting for his first pre-SEC season. Lewis by contrast was giving the team 8.1 points and 4.9 boards, though pickier shot selection was good for 57% shooting and his free-throwing was nearly automatic. The fact remains that Ware is making the best of his unexpected opportunity.
“I have to fill big shoes as starting center and have to step up and work hard every day,” said Ware, who was rewarded for a big game by being named SEC Freshman of the Week. He certainly worked hard against Central Arkansas, producing 22 points with 13 rebounds and hitting eight of nine shots. Oh, and six of eight free throws, which matters. Given how teams are getting rough with the thin and often smaller State lineup, Ware needs to be comfortable at the foul line.
Ray would certainly rather have a senior center like Lewis to alternate and even pair with Ware, but the newer post-man is a welcome development. “We needed to have a focal point,” he said. “Obviously Gavin is the only candidate right now.”
Ware is also a bigger body than Lewis, though his youth and lack of college-conditioning will still show for a while. At Jackson he was obviously gassed near the end of the first half with no true post to take his place. Such rotation responsibility as Ray can manage is now shared by forwards Rocquez Johnson and Colin Borchert.
Johnson in fact has done the most to carry this club through all the setbacks. He leads the team at 12.8 points but maybe more impressively is getting to 5.9 rebounds. There’s nothing polished and often not even scripted about how Johnson gets his numbers, he’s just an ‘effort’ guy with a knack for being around the ball. “That’s my game,” he said. “I feel I’m quick at my position and playing bigger guys, so I just go around them.”
Borchert, signed as a wing shooter, has found himself playing more paint-minutes. It’s actually improved his offense with 18 points in the last two games, his best stretch so far. But more than that, “We’ve been on Colin about becoming a better rebounder and defender,” Ray said. “He gave us a huge lift.”
Steele’s absence has opened the door for freshmen guards Fred Thomas and Craig Sword to get a lot more minutes than ever anticipated. It hasn’t been pretty at times as they are, after all, freshmen and play that way. Opposing defenses have certainly jumped on the kids and pressure—along with their raw energy—has resulted in too many turnovers. Ditto for sophomore Trivante Bloodman, the only ‘point’ guard on the roster after those two summer injuries.
Ray is learning to live with giveaways best he can, and lately is seeing his youngsters settle down a bit better. The ball movement at Jackson, and in the second half at Loyola, was much better controlled and productive. And whatever else their growing pains, this trio gives all they have on the defensive end and are now forcing turnovers in-turn.
Now, if only they can find the range on jumpshots. Because the Bulldogs in-whole are just 24%, at the arc through ten games. Bloodman and big guard Tyson Cunningham have actually been the most accurate but aren’t frequent firers. Thomas is the one who ought to be knocking down long shots and he certainly tries with 72 of the team’s 146 attempts.
To his credit the kid is looking for other shots now, using his sizable skills to dribble-drive and pop or pass, and now is averaging 10.8 points. Steele’s return has to help with outside offense once he is back in game-shape. Another good sign was putting five players in double-figures the last time out, as well as scoring a season-best 79 points.
“Our team was in chemistry,” said Ware. “We got inside looks as well as guard looks.”
“Our guys did a good job doing post feeds, and making extra passes,” Ray said. “We’ve been harping about not taking the first open three-point shot. Our guys weren’t selfish, they did a good job finding the open teammate.”
Such things matter as Mississippi State resumes play. Alabama A&M is 3-7 and has lost already to SEC opponents Vanderbilt (71-46) and Arkansas (95-68). The MSU Bulldogs get to play another Bulldog bunch that shoots worse overall at 38.4% and is being beaten on the backboards. State is 21-2 against SWAC opponents, and 4-0 against their namesakes.
Sunday’s telecast will feature some familiar Bulldog faces, and voices. Former State head coach Richard Williams and former guard Shane Power will provide commentary along with play-by-play man Mike Morgan.
The New Orleans game to wrap up pre-SEC season is 6:00 next Thursday.