By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Rick Ray has perhaps the toughest coaching job in the country. But he’s also got one of the lowest-pressure jobs. There is not one reasonable person who expects Ray to win more than a handful of games in his first season as Mississippi State men’s basketball coach.
The guy has eight healthy scholarship players. That’s barely enough for a solid rotation, and five of these guys have never played SEC basketball. At least two of them will have to start, and the team’s two walk-ons – Tyson Cunningham and Baxter Price – had better get ready for some important playing time.
The Bulldogs will struggle. That doesn’t mean this can’t be a successful season.
Ray has his particular schemes, and it’ll take some time for this team to pick up on them. But one thing they can establish early is hustle and toughness.
Those are two qualities Ray harps on. He’s trying to teach his players how to be physical on defense without fouling, and that’s a foreign concept to the younger players. He also wants his players going all out all the time, and so the conditioning of this team is a big priority.
Fans who show up to watch MSU this season might not see a great offensive team, and there will likely be struggles on the defensive end, too. But let’s go back to something Ray said the day he was introduced as Rick Stansbury’s replacement.
“We may not have the most talent, we might not have the best shooters and we might not be the longest guys on the court, but I’m telling you what, we’re going to fight you.”
Jalen Steele, a junior guard who has the most starting experience on the team, said the other day that he believes MSU can win more games than people expect. And winning should be a big goal.
As far as judging this year’s team and job Ray does with them, however, the win-loss ledger shouldn’t even be a factor. While he abhors the word “rebuilding,” that’s exactly what this season is for State, because so many pieces are gone from last season, and there is so much inexperience this year.
Actually, rebuilding might not be strong enough a term. Ray doesn’t even have enough materials to start rebuilding from a personnel standpoint.
Teams are allowed to have 13 players on scholarship each year; he’s got 10, and two of those are out for the year with knee injuries.
The rebuilding of the program will be in the recruiting game. As for this year’s team, the rebuilding has to do with a new approach and a new attitude.
If that toughness and hustle are consistently evident, then you can consider Ray’s first season a success.
Brad Locke (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Mississippi State for the Daily Journal and blogs daily at DJournal.com.