MSU Media Day: Rick Ray

 

Mississippi State went 14-19 overall and 3-15 in SEC play last season under Rick Ray. (AP Photo/Jim Lytle)

Mississippi State went 14-19 overall and 3-15 in SEC play last season under Rick Ray. (AP Photo/Jim Lytle)

Mississippi State held its annual on-campus media day on Wednesday. Men’s basketball coach Rick Ray shared his thoughts about the upcoming season.

The following is a transcript of his time at the podium…

Opening Statement …

“First and foremost, I just wanted to recognize someone. Dr. (E.C.) O’Neil just recently passed away. He was a long time scoreboard operator. I just wanted to make sure to recognize him and all that he did for Mississippi State athletics. The second thing I want to delve into is just the fact that obviously we’ve had two new injuries that have come to light since the last time we had a chance to talk. Specifically, Johnny Zuppardo tore his ACL. It was a non-contact injury. This is something that you want to make sure that you build for, as far as depth is concerned. I think in the past two years, a Johnny Zuppardo ACL injury would have been devastating to our team, but now with our depth that we have, especially on the front line, it’s not as debilitating. We can compensate for that a little bit because we have guys like Oliver Black in the program. The one thing that we will have to do as compensation for his injury is to play Travis Daniels at the four spot and not entirely just at the three spot. Craig Sword, with his back injury, was a situation where he probably could have played with it through the season, but would have had to tolerate the pain and it would have hindered his athletic ability. I’ll liken it to Larry Bird’s last couple of years, playing with that back injury. But Larry Bird could stay in the corner and still be a threat because of his skill level. With Chicken, he’s not that type of a player. He needs his athleticism and explosiveness in order to be an effective basketball player. We felt it was in his best interest to go ahead and have the surgery. There’s still a good chance that he could not miss any games. If he does, he could probably miss a couple games. The last thing that I want to touch on, talking to our team, is just about what is going on with our campus. I’ve touched on leadership in the past and how important that is to our team, and they’ve got a great example right here on campus with what’s happening with our football team. Our football team is a bowl-eligible team, but they went from a bowl-eligible team to being the number one team in the country. And it’s simply because of maturity and leadership. They have guys like Dak Prescott and Benardrick McKinney who have provided leadership for that team. I think that’s a great teaching point for our guys, so that they can see where they can go. Our football team went from being unranked to the number one team in the country simply because of maturity and leadership.”

On the characteristics of his team …

“The one thing that really stands out is our length and athleticism. I think that we can really do some things 94-feet defensively; things that I’ve been wanting to do here in the past couple of years. But I think with our length and athleticism we can do that. The thing that’s unique about our team is, along with their length and athleticism, we actually have quickness, too. I think that we have some guys like I.J. [Ready], Trivante [Bloodman], Chicken, and Maurice Dunlap that can really bother the basketball defending it. I think that we have some guys that can rotate over defensively with their length like Oliver Black, Demetrius Houston, Travis Daniels, and Fallou Ndoye that can really be effective with what we want to do in pressing. That has really stood out. The other thing that has really stood out for us is what’s happening when the shot goes up. It used to be when the shot goes up, we really weren’t around the basketball and around the rim, but now we have guys like Oliver Black and Demetrius Houston going in and getting offensive rebounds and affecting the shot after it has left the shooter’s hands. I think that’s really encouraging from those two standpoints.”

On wanting to play Craig Sword at point guard …

“That has obviously been stunted a little bit because we wanted to get Chicken some experience at doing that here in practice and we haven’t been able to do that because of the injury. We still have two really good options with I.J. and Trivante at the point guard position, but I wanted to have somebody that was a bigger point guard when we play someone like a (Aaron) Harrison kid from Kentucky, where he’s 6’6”. Now we can put Chicken out there, who’s 6’4”, and hopefully have a bigger and stronger team out there. I want to always make sure that we have three options at the point guard position, and I think Chicken can be an option for that and will be an option.”

On being careful when dealing with injuries …

“We will definitely air on the side of caution. I think you guys all know, anytime that you’re dealing with a back injury, there are always four to six weeks. So if there’s a situation where we don’t quite feel confident with him after four weeks then we’ll definitely stretch it to five weeks. And if at five weeks we don’t feel confident with it, we’ll stretch it to six weeks. When it’s all said and done, we want to make sure that we’re doing what’s best for our student-athletes welfare. So until Chicken feels good about it and our medical staff feels good about it, we won’t push him to get back just because we want to get him out there for games.”

On Gavin Ware …

“I think the biggest thing that we’ve seen the difference in with Gavin [Ware] is that he actually has competition in practice, day-in and day-out. It used to be that Gavin could make a post-move against Fallou and then come across the lane and there was no one there to challenge him at the rim. Now you have Oliver Black coming up and challenging him at the rim. You have other guys challenging him at the rim, and that’s making Gavin Ware a better basketball player. But more importantly, it’s making him aware of his surroundings. And now another thing affecting Gavin Ware is a competition for minutes now. And it’s a legitimate competition for minutes. So this will be the first time that Gavin has been challenged, and I think he has really responded well to those challenges. I think when it’s all said and done, Gavin Ware’s improvement has to do with his conditioning. If he’s not well-conditioned, then he doesn’t become a better basketball player because he can’t play as hard as he needs to in order to be successful. So what we want to do is focus on him being a conditioned athlete, and I think that if he is a conditioned athlete, he’ll have a better year this year. And obviously the help that he has around his now will really help as well.”

On the development of Craig Sword’s ability to play point guard …

“It’s definitely a practice situation first. And with the way that we play, it’s not a big difference between what you do at the point guard position and what we do at the two-guard position. I always say, if you’re a guard, you should be able to dribble, pass and shoot. You can see when Chicken is in the open court, there’s not much difference between what he’s doing when he’s bring the ball up in the open court situation and what he would do in a point guard situation. The difference is that Chicken struggles usually come when the defense is set, in a half-court setting. And that’s where we want to make him feel more comfortable. And the only way that we can make him feel more comfortable in that role is obviously to have him do it in practice. It’s definitely going to happen. At some point in time, I think you’ll see us with a really big back court- the one, two and three positions. So you can have Chicken at the point guard spot, Fred (Thomas) at the two guard spot, and then either Demetrius or Travis at the three and have a really big team. But then obviously sometimes, you’re going to see either I.J. or Trivante at the point guard spot, Chicken or Fred at the two guard spot or Chicken at the two and Fred at the three. The biggest thing that we have now is that we have some options to combat what other teams are doing. In the past we didn’t really have any options to combat what the other team was doing.”

On the advantages of having a smaller, quicker point guard:

“I think bigger point guards have a hard time keeping up with I.J. and Trivante. I also think that bigger point guards a difficulty guarding ball screens cause they get hit by more ball screens because there is more body to hit. I don’t think that’s a problem. We never really worry about that. If we end up with a bigger point guard on I.J. or Trivante, it’s to our benefit.”

On the goals of his basketball team …

“I think when’s it’s all said and done, it’s pretty simple. We need to be challenging for postseason basketball. Whether that is the NIT or the NCAA, that’s yet to be determined and that’s really out of our hands because if you sit down and ask what the requirements are for an NCAA Tournament basketball team, you really don’t know. It kind of changes every day. Is RPI more important? Is strength of schedule more important, winning 20 games, what you did in conference play? There’s no true barometer of what gets you into the NCAA Tournament. For us, we want to make sure that we’re in a position to be challenging for postseason basketball.”

On his team’s non-conference schedule goals …

“Well we don’t have a specific win/loss total. To me, I think there’s one opportunity for us to go down to Corpus Christi, Texas and play for a championship. I think if we can go down there and win a championship, that’s significant because now the team is in the mindset of going and competing for championships. I think the other thing with our nonconference schedule is, it’s an indicator of what I think of my team. We bumped up our nonconference schedule because I think we have a better basketball team. I think we have a chance to go and win at an Oregon State. I think we have a chance to win at Tulane. I think we have a chance to come in and win against a very good Florida State basketball team. That’s the reason that we do it because I have confidence in my team.”

On his team being able to control a game …

“Obviously we haven’t been in that situation before because we simply didn’t have the personnel and the depth to do that. But what I would like to see is for us to play at a faster tempo on the defensive end. We also want to play faster on the offensive end as well. But this is what we do not want to do: we do not want to create offense for the other team. I think what happens a lot of times when teams press, what they end up doing is creating offensive opportunities for the other team. We want to make sure that we’re pressing, but we want to make sure that we’re being solid and sound in our pressing. It’s the same thing with us on the offensive end. We want to push and we want to attack, but we don’t want to do that and end up turning the basketball over. It’s all about ball security on the offensive end and still being sound on the defensive end, even though we’re pressing.”

On the development of Travis Daniels and Fallou Ndoye …

“It remains to be seen because they haven’t played any actual games. And so I really don’t have an answer to that, until we see how they do when the popcorn is popping. I think in practices right now you can see that they have a level of maturity to them because they’ve been in our program for a year and that’s a benefit for them. But we really don’t know how they’re going to respond to being in a game. Some kids are unbelievable in practice, and then they get out in the game and they kind of freeze up for the first time. So we’ll see how they react to that when there are actual people in the stands. As of right now, Fallou has a distinct advantage because of the fact that he’s been here for a whole two semesters, whereas Travis only had one semester. But I think them sitting out has actually benefitted them as far as being ready to get on the court. “

On having to coach his team mentally …

“We had success in nonconference last season, but we struggled during the conference season. So even if we get off to a great start in our nonconference, we have something to look toward. Like last year, we had a pretty good nonconference schedule headed into SEC play and obviously didn’t follow with that. So even if we do have success during the nonconference, which we fully expect, we can keep our guys grounded by looking at last season.”

On his team’s confidence from last year’s SEC tournament …

“Yeah, I really believe so. I think our guys went into the offseason with a confidence that they could be a good basketball team because of the success that they had in the SEC tournament. And I really do believe that if Fred Thomas hadn’t hurt his ankle during that game [vs. Ole Miss] and we didn’t have anyone to chase around Marshall Henderson, I think would’ve made a huge difference and we would’ve had success in the second half too. But I thought Fred Thomas’ ankle injury in that second half of the Ole Miss game really turned things around because we didn’t have anyone with any height and length to chase around Marshall Henderson. But I think our guys saw that we could have success. And now with those key components coming in that we’re adding to, we can even go forward from there.”

On Fred Thomas’ defensive ability …

“I have tape that will back up that not everybody on our team is easy for Fred Thomas to guard. I think that he is an outstanding defender. I think that he is legitimately going to be an SEC All-Defensive team guy. I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t be. Every single time that we play somebody, more than likely Fred Thomas is going to be on the other team’s best offensive perimeter player. I think he’s going to have success, too. He has an uncanny ability to move his feet. He’s already long, but I think the thing that’s made him an even better defender as he’s been here is the fact that he’s got strength now. When Fred came in, he was very weak. He hadn’t been in a strength program before and he also wasn’t able to lift because he wasn’t here with us the whole summer. And as soon as he got here, we figured out he had a stress fracture in his foot. So that set him back even further. But I think now with the added strength that he has and the knowledge that he has of how we want to defend and what he can do. I think that he’s going to be an excellent defender for us, and I would really be surprised if he doesn’t end up being an All-SEC defensive guy.”

On the development of Fred Thomas’ shooting ability …

“I think first and foremost, Fred Thomas was thrust into an unfair situation. I think it’s hard to ask an incoming freshman to make every shot for us that’s open because we didn’t have guys on the court with him that could make shots. And so every time that Fred Thomas got the ball and he was in a situation where he could make a three, it was like the whole gym, the whole coaching staff, the whole team wanted to make sure that Fred made that three because we just didn’t have a lot of options. So I think now, we’ve grown from that, where we don’t have Fred Thomas as our only outside threat. That’s only going to help Fred Thomas and take some of that pressure off him. The other thing is, leave him alone. I think now he understands what’s a good shot and what’s a bad shot. I think that we can’t be wrapped up in all the results of what Fred Thomas can do on the court being dependent on if he can make a three or not.”

On the importance of guards and ball handling …

“I don’t think it’s necessarily just a point guard game, but what I think it has become is a ball handler’s game. You see a guy like Chicken, he really affects the game with his ability to penetrate, but it’s not just off of ball screens but also in the open court. So to me, it’s not so much a point guard game, but it’s become a guard’s game, with first and foremost ball screens. Everybody runs a ball screen offense. I tell our guys every single time, defensively, when you’re guy passes the basketball, he’s going to go set a ball screen. They don’t do anything else. So don’t be surprised by a guy setting a ball screen. But I think with everybody running some sort of a ball screen motion, it’s opening up the court for these guards, these really good ball handlers and penetrators to go make a play. I think the other thing that’s happening too, with the way that referees call the game now, with the emphasis on hand checking and not being physical on the court, it has really opened the game up for guys like Chicken who can put their head down and drive to the basket. Because when you give them space, it’s almost impossible to keep these guys out of the lane without fouling them with the way that the referees call it.”

On the importance of finishing at the rim:

“I think what you have to do is put those guys in a situation where they can finish. And I think that’s something that we’ve changed in our offense. We always used to have our fours and fives racing behind the ball screen, but now what we’ve done is put those guys up underneath the basket because Chicken, I.J., Trivante, Fred Thomas, Demetrius Houston and those guys are going to get into the lane. Once they get into the lane, we want to put that big man defensively in a situation where he has to decide to help on the drive or to stay with his man. And once he helps up on the drive, it’s all about our big men having the ability to finish. That’s what we’ve been working on so much. Once Chicken draws your man and he throws the ball to you, you have to have the ability to finish or all the drives and all the spacing that we have really doesn’t mean anything.”

Closing Remarks:

“One last note here, I think this is really obvious, not anything subtle. We have a brand new scoreboard that has been lowered so that everyone can see it. We’re really excited about the fact that we have this brand new scoreboard. It’s high-definition now, instead of it being standard definition. I think it’s going to be a really good fan experience for people that come to the game.”

 

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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