MSU coach Rick Ray was not able to take part in today’s SEC coaches teleconference, but assistant Chris Hollender was a more than capable pinch hitter. We had a good chat with Hollender, who talked about freshman Craig Sword and the upcoming SEC Tournament, where the Bulldogs (9-21) will open play Wednesday as the 13 seed versus 12 seed South Carolina (14-17).
Here’s the full Hollender transcript.
“Well, I think for us right now our group is really excited about coming to work every day and playing every day. We’re playing a little bit better here in the last few games. We had a great win against Ole Miss and then went and played a tough South Carolina team at South Carolina and fought to get back into that game, and then lost another young man on our team (Jalen Steele, knee) to injury and then come back with six scholarship guys and finish off the way we did, we’re really proud of the way these guys are competing and fighting every day. Really excited about going in and having a chance to play again on Wednesday.”
On Sword winning SEC Freshman of the Week:
“Well, I think all of our guys, and Craig has done a great job of staying with it. All of our guys really have. A lot of freshmen, like you said, hit a wall and they have a lot of other guys they can lean on and you can put in to give them some time to break and get through that wall. Our guys don’t have that opportunity just because of our numbers situation. All of them have done a great job of continuing to come in, work, watch film, get better on a daily basis. I think those freshmen are going through some things they never even thought they would have to go through: the amount of playing time, the amount of minutes, the amount of responsibility and effort that was going to go into it because, obviously, due to the injuries and our situation. He’s done a great job. I’ll tell you one thing that he has really, in my mind, has gotten better at is his pace has changed. He’s got a motor and he can go extremely fast all the time, and what we’re trying to get him to do is slow him down and see things consistently. I think he’s done a really good job of changing pace and slowing down when he needs to, and recognizing situations throughout the games.”
You’ve won two of your last three, you’ve beaten South Carolina, how is the guys’ mindset entering the SEC Tournament?
“I think it’ll be good. These guys all year long have come to work, fought back from a lot of adversity. There’s probably not a college basketball team in America that’s gone through what we’ve gone through this year. These guys come in every day with a worker’s mentality, wanting to get better, listening to coach, being very coachable, and they’ve responded throughout the entire year in an unbelievable way. We’re really proud of (them). I think they’re going to continue to do that. They could’ve folded up shop with the tough blow losing Jalen in that South Carolina game, and they came back, and they competed against Auburn. As a coach, that gives you a lot of hope and a lot of energy, and you’re really excited about having another opportunity to go out and play.”
What do you stress to the players who haven’t played in the SEC Tournament before?
“You’ve just got to approach if like you’re trying to get better as a team. You look at your last time you went out against Auburn, you look at your last opportunity against South Carolina, and you try to figure out some things to help your team have a chance to win. You concentrate on yourselves. You get in here, and you work on getting better as a team. Obviously South Carolina is a very well-coached basketball team. They’re going to play very tough and physical, try to pressure you. The only thing you can control, you can’t control who you play or how you play, you’ve just got to come in and try to get better every day, and I think that’s how we’ll approach it with our guys, is work on what we need to get better at individually and collectively and then go in and try to take advantage of an opportunity here.”
Has Sword kind of taken on a leadership or catalyst role for you?
“I think all the guys really have rallied around each other. Obviously he has the ball in his hands a lot more than the other guys, and he’s been played out of position a lot this year. All of our guys have had to play a lot of different positions. We played Colin Borchert at the three last game just because of our situation with our numbers. But I think Chicken naturally has a lot of really big-time leadership qualities. He comes from a very successful high school program that won a lot of state championships. His personality and his ability to communicate with people and his wanting to win and willingness to compete make him a natural leader for us in the locker room.”