BRAD LOCKE: Freshman shooter pours his energy into defense

By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal

Those of us in the media room got a chuckle Wednesday night after Mississippi State’s 56-54 win over South Carolina. Why?
Because freshman Fred Thomas tweeted the following: “People keep telling me i was a monster on D tonight maybe i need to stop shooting and be a defensive Player.”
Someone joked that assistant coach Wes Flanigan had hacked Thomas’ Twitter account and posted that message.
It really was Thomas, of course, who typed and sent that message. The fact he said it is significant, because he came to MSU with a well-earned reputation as a shooter. You might recall him burying a late 3-point shot for Jackson Jim Hill High School to beat Tupelo in last year’s Class 6A state title game.
The shots haven’t been falling very often for Thomas this season. He’s made just 31.5 percent of his attempts, including a paltry 23 percent from 3-point range. He missed all four 3-point tries against South Carolina and finished with eight points.
Thomas had a huge impact on defense, though, coming up with a game-high five steals. His biggest play came with MSU clinging to a 54-52 lead with under a minute to go.
South Carolina point guard Bruce Ellington had the ball, until Thomas poked it away. Craig Sword picked it up and raced the other way for a dunk with 26 seconds remaining.
Coach Rick Ray praised Thomas’ play in the 1-3-1 defense MSU sometimes employed, noting that “because of his length (he) was really able to get out in the passing lanes and get some deflections.”
I’d bet that Thomas rediscovers his shot. But his commitment to defense affirms something I’ve written about before: Ray is getting his young team to follow him, no matter how rough it gets.
And it’s been rough for MSU. Ray called the recent loss to Alabama A&M a “public embarrassment,” and even after the South Carolina win, his team is only 6-7 overall.
Yet all the players keep getting after it on defense, and the last couple of games have been particularly impressive defensive performances by State: South Carolina and New Orleans combined to shoot 36.3 percent from the field and committed 47 turnovers between them.
“During the last couple of games, coaches said play every defensive possession like it’s your last,” Sword said.
That mindset is apparent when you watch the Bulldogs play defense. Nothing comes easy for the opponent, and that has led to some recent success for MSU.
Even a shooter like Thomas can recognize that.
Brad Locke (brad.locke@journalinc.com) covers Mississippi State for the Daily Journal and blogs daily at DJournal.com.