Ray ready to start practice

Mississippi State men’s basketball coach Rick Ray met with the media prior to the Bulldogs beginning practice on Friday. MSU will hold 30 practices over the next 42 days as it prepares to tipoff the 2014-15 season.

Here is a transcript of Ray’s press conference…

Opening statement …
I’m really excited about the beginning and start of practice. The NCAA changed the rules two years ago where 42 days out from our first practice, we can have 30 days of practice. So they made it kind of similar to the spring football model. We can officially start practice Friday, Oct. 3rd, and we have to take 12 days off in those 42 days that we have allotted.

Obviously, we’re really excited about what we have in store. I think we had a total of 14 scholarship players in my first two years here, and I think we actually have 12 now. So we matched the total of the first two years in this one year.

The biggest things that I think changes about our team is two things. First and foremost, we actually have experience for the first time in my tenure here; along with that experience, we actually have size. I know I’ve said this before, but we go from having three guys on our team who are 6’7” or above to having seven guys who are 6’7” or above. We go from having one guy on our team who is 6’9” or above to having four guys on our team who are 6’9” or above. I’m really excited about what we can do. I think it’s going to help our players individually and as a team. Individually, there’s going to be competition for those minutes on the front line. The second thing is it [team size] allows for simulation. When we would go play a Kentucky or LSU, that was the first time our guys had played against size as opposed to seeing it in day-to-day competition in practice. I’m looking forward to it.

Fred [Thomas] has done a phenomenal job for us this off-season, and I would be surprised and shocked if he isn’t a first team all-SEC defensive player at the end of the year. We’ll put him on the best perimeter player of the opposing team every time, and I think he will do a fantastic job of showing his defensive prowess.

We need Gavin [Ware] and [Craig Sword] to continue to make strides in their game, but the thing I like the most about our team at this point in time is the fact that nothing is promised because of the competition for minutes. So, even if you’ve been here two years, whether you are a Gavin, Fred  or Craig, there’s actually competition for those minutes now. And I think in order for us to make a jump as a program, that’s what we need.

On Fallou Ndoye and Travis Daniels …
“I know technically those two guys are newcomers, but they’re unique and not really newcomers to the program. The first time they set foot on the court will be the first time they actually play basketball, but they have been here the whole year, or in Travis’ [Daniels] case, the whole semester. I think that benefits them as far as not being true newcomers. I think Travis, first and foremost, is probably our most skilled guy on the team, besides maybe I.J. [Ready]. He can do so many different things, and he’s a legitimate 6’8” guy. He has a body to compete in the SEC right away. We just need him to be an aggressive guy. He’s such a good person, and he tends to be passive at times. He wants to make sure everybody likes him, but we need him to be aggressive. I’ve explained to him that when he’s aggressive he’s helping the team because he’s such a good person that he’s going to make the right decision once that time comes when he gets into the paint. He’s probably our most talented guy. Does that mean he’s our best player? That remains to be seen, but as far as if you went to watch him in a practice or individual workout, you might say, ‘Hey, he might be their best player.’ So I think that helps our team.

With Fallou, just having the size that we haven’t had in the past and the fact that he’s done a really good job in the weight room in adding strength. He hasn’t added as much weight as we would like, but he’s gotten tremendously stronger here in his years sitting out. We’ll actually have a guy who can go up and challenge shots at the rim and finish at the rim. I think with Fallou and Oliver [Black] in those two positions, the five and the four, you can do anything you want to as far as ball-screen defense because of those guys’ mobility and ability to move their feet.

On other newcomers …
“I think Maurice [Dunlap], first and foremost, chose to be here both summers, and I think that move for him has been really beneficial. He’s gotten so much bigger and stronger in the off-season. He’s really a kid that has worked hard for everything he’s got. I’ve been surprised that he’s dedicated himself to basketball here in this off-season. He’s a guy that can really make a difference on our team because of his ability to shoot the basketball. The thing that we have come to find out with him is he is a determined worker. He’s come in here almost every day on his own. He’s put in the time and effort in order to get better. I think he’s a guy that can get by people. He has a tremendous burst. His thing is deciding, once he gets into the lane, whether to finish against size or dump down and make the right decision. We’ve got to get him to where he feels comfortable doing those things, because he’s done a really good job of getting by his man and into the lane.

I think Demetrius [Houston] is going to be a fantastic player for us. He’s even better than I thought he would be. He’s 6’7” and a legitimate three-man. I just don’t see anybody on the court that is going to be more athletic than him. He’s a guy that can finish at the rim against anybody. I think as he learns the game of basketball and continues to increase his skill level, I don’t see how he doesn’t end up being an All-SEC type caliber guy, because there’s nobody with that size, length and athleticism as far as opposing teams.

I think if you start to look at Oliver, he’s in a little bit of the same situation as Fred was in two years ago because he was trying to get some things done academically with the eligibility center. He didn’t get here at all in the summer time. So now it’s, ‘is he behind everybody else because of that? Can he catch up with everybody else because he didn’t have the summer everybody else had in front of him?’ So he’s done a great job, and he’s a tremendous worker. He wins all of our spring drills at 6’9.” He’s the guy that is lapping people in conditioning. He’s gotten bigger and stronger just in the little time that he’s been here. His thing will be if he can catch up to everybody else at this point in time, but he’s putting in the effort to do that. Just think, with big guys these days, if you can get guys that play hard and give an effort, then they will get better.”

“The thing about Johnny [Zuppardo] is if you don’t think he’s good, just ask him. He’s got a tremendous amount of confidence in himself and in his game; that’s what you want. You want a guy who goes out there and thinks he can be successful at this level and play against anybody. Obviously, he’s had success at the junior college level, leading his team to a National Junior College title, the first time ever in the state of Mississippi. So he’s a guy that brings us an edge to it. I think he’s got a skill level. He’s similar to Colin [Borchert] as far as his ability to pass, shoot and dribble. I think what sets him apart is the fact that he has a competitive chip on his shoulder. He’s not afraid to go in there and mix it up with his back to the basket and get offensive and defensive rebounds. He’s just a highly competitive kid, and the reason he’s highly competitive is the fact that he thinks he’s pretty damn good.”

On Demetrius Houston …
“Athletically he’s not far. He’s right there with anybody in the SEC with anybody we’ve seen so far. He’s an unbelievable athlete. He’ll do some things out on the court that reminds of things at the same stage of K.J. McDaniels when I was at Clemson, who came in as a raw athlete that turned into a really good basketball player. If you ask me to compare Demetrius to K.J. McDaniels, we’re splitting hairs. But as far as Demetrius being physically bigger and stronger coming in as a freshman, there’s no question he is bigger and stronger coming in as a freshman. If you talk about a guy who can move laterally as far as running and jumping. The difference right now for Demetrius is will he be able to pass, shoot and dribble at the level of his athleticism? That’s what has to catch up. His skill level has to catch up with his athleticism. His athleticism is really high at this point in time. I don’t know if it’s something going on in the water at Carver High School, but those are two of the best athletes I’ve ever been around in Craig and Demetrius.

On the pressure being off Gavin Ware…
“Shooting is still a concern for us. I think right now we have an option to not play a lineup to where we’re always pigeonholed as far as things like our shooting ability. I think now that we have some options with some players, we won’t have a team out there where opposing teams are not guarding us because of our lack of shooting. We can put a lineup out there – putting a Travis Daniels out there, putting a Maurice Dunlap out there, putting an I.J. Ready out there – where we have guys who can make shots, to take some of that pressure off of Gavin Ware. That’s going to be key for us. But the thing when it’s all said and done is individual player development. It’s two-fold. We have to make sure, as coaches, that we’re doing everything we can to make Gavin Ware a better basketball player, but Gavin has to take what we’re doing with him in the time we can be with him and do it on his own. That’s always a key. Guys have to make progressions in their game. I always say this: we get two hours a week that we can work with our guys in the offseason, and if you think you’re going to become a better basketball player in those two hours a week, you’re sorely mistaken. It’s kind of like homework. You have class and you’re there for an hour. You’re probably going to spend an hour or two outside of that classroom on homework. What those guys do with their homework is the key as to whether those guys get better or not. I think we have some things around Gavin now that will give him some help. He won’t have to be the guy to get every offensive rebound, defensive rebound, guard the other team’s best player in the post. We have some guys that can alleviate some of those situations, but at the end of the day, did Gavin Ware put in the work in order for him to become a better basketball player? It’s not going to magically happen because we have better players around him. He’s got to make sure he still does the work himself, too.

On Craig Sword and Demetrius Houston on floor at same time…
“Once again, it boils down to packaging what we want to do. I think in order for us to continue to move forward and progress as a team, Chicken [Craig Sword] is going to have to play some point for us. What I mean by that is, I don’t think that we can have a steady diet of guys like Trivante [Bloodman], Chicken and Demetrius because all those guys are not great shooters. All those guys are great athletes, but I think at some point in time we have to have a situation we have Chicken at the point so we can play Demetrius more. But I don’t think we can have all those guys out there who are not your so-called shooters. In order for us to progress as a basketball team, we need to be able to slide Chicken over to the point some and be a bigger, stronger team, and then use his ability to break down the defense. However, he can only break down the defense if he has guys out there like Fred Thomas, Travis Daniels and Maurice Dunlap who can make shots. I would throw Johnny Zuppardo in that group as well, too. What I’m saying is we have to make sure we’re putting the right package out there to make sure our guys are being successful.

On players putting in extra work outside of practice…
“All you can do is buy what your guys say. What I mean by that is, use something you harp on, something you always talk about, but whether they’re physically doing that, we can’t check that off the list. We have unbelievable facilities here. I always say we want to make sure we’re giving our guys 24-hour access to get better. They have that here with the Mize practice facility so we want to make sure they’re taking advantage of that.

On veteran leadership…
“To me, that’s the whole key for our season. I have every confidence that we’re going to be a better basketball team. There’s no if, ands or doubts about that. We’re going to be a better team. We’re going to win more ball games. However, for us to take that next step as far as challenging for postseason play, whether it be NIT or NCAA, we’re going to have leadership inside the locker room. I think these past two years I’ve been the unquestioned leader. That’s all fine and dandy, but at some point in time, the things that I’m saying, the things that I’m harping on, is it being carried in the locker room when the coaching staff is not around? We need somebody and it can’t just be veteran guys. I think sometimes people get wrapped up in, ‘this guy is a senior so he’s a leader.’ No, that’s not true. We have to make sure that somebody is in the locker room that’s making sure that they’re enforcing the same things the coaching staff is enforcing. I want that for us to take the next step as a basketball team. If I’m the only leader on the basketball team, we’re going to be better, there’s no question about it, but can we be as good as we can be? No. We need somebody in the locker room reiterating the same things that I’m saying.

On Roquez Johnson…
“Roquez  hasn’t talked very much if you haven’t noticed from the press conferences that he has done. You know what Roquez does? He has the respect of the team. Roquez is a tough kid. He’s the type of guy that if you’re going down a dark alley, you want him with you. He’s the type of guy that commands people’s respect, because of how hard he plays and how tough of a kid he is. I don’t know as far as being a vocal leader, if he fits that role. But he’s a guy, as far as doing what he’s supposed to do and playing hard and being a tough kid, he’s actually a model for that.

On I.J. Ready’s leadership as a sophomore…
“I think any coach would say they would want their point guard to be a leader, because they have the ball in their hand so much you want them to be that coach on the floor for you. But it’s got to be something that’s natural for them, too. It’s something that has to be coached and coaxed at times. I don’t think people say, ‘you’re going to be a leader,’ but they don’t show them how to be a leader. It’s a whole different story. I go back to my days when I majored in applied mathematics. I took all these classes like numerical analysis and calculus III and things like that. My first class I taught was intro to mathematics, and the first thing we did was two-column additions. So 58 plus 17, and I’m saying, ‘well, 8 and 7 is 15, carry the 1,’ and somebody may have raised their hand and said, ‘how did you get that?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know. 8 and 7 is 15.’ What I’m saying is we expect people to be able to teach things. We assume that, but that’s not anything we can assume. We got to make sure that we’re having an environment and fostering an environment where a guy like I.J. Ready can become a leader as a sophomore.

On teaching I.J. Ready a leadership role…
“I think I.J. is made of the right stuff. I think he’s a guy that wants to be successful, and I think he’s a guy that wants the team to be successful. Him having the ability to carry that out, and I think it is a hindrance when you’re a freshman and you’re trying to learn things and trying to tread water and all the sudden, ‘oh, you want me to be a leader, too?’ I think that’s a little too much for a guy at that level. I think I.J. is going to grow into that, but we’ll see.

On if there are any health concerns at this time…
“Not at this point in time. Gavin Ware about six weeks ago subluxed his knee. From my understanding, what happened was he had his knee cap come out of joint just momentarily and snap right back in, so he had some pain and inflammation in that. Beyond that, he is back 100 percent right now and hasn’t had any problems with that. Beyond that we don’t have any injuries. Everybody has their little nicks bruises and ailments and things like that, but as far as a serious injury or something to report on, that’s really it.

I have covered Mississippi State in some capacity since 2004 and joined the Daily Journal staff in 2013. I enjoy short walks on the beach, performing concerts in my car and watching professional wrestling.

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