By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Of all the qualities Rick Ray is trying to instill in Mississippi State’s basketball team, perhaps the most important one has already taken hold.
The players are listening to him.
This is a young, impressionable team, and they appear to be a group eager to learn from their coach and from their mistakes. They seem willing to sacrifice self for the greater good.
That’s what Ray wants from them, and that’s what this program needs. I imagine it’s very refreshing for the fans to see this.
The Bulldogs are 2-4, having defeated Alcorn State on Tuesday after losing three games at the Maui Invitational last week. It was evident in postgame interviews that the players are taking instruction and trying to apply it.
Freshman Fred Thomas said coaches told him to be patient and find other shots if his 3-pointers weren’t falling. He did that Tuesday, scoring 14 points despite missing all four 3-point attempts.
Freshman Craig Sword was told to “play calm” and let the game come to him. He did that Tuesday, scoring 14 points and recording five steals.
Freshman Gavin Ware said there was an emphasis on hitting the boards, because the Bulldogs had been out-rebounded in every game this season. On Tuesday, they won that battle convincingly, 50-20.
What I saw against Alcorn State was an MSU team bent on forcing the issue offensively, with smooth ball movement and aggressiveness in the paint. Defensively, MSU made life miserable for Alcorn, cutting off passing lanes and forcing tough looks.
It was the kind of play Ray is hoping will define this team long term. Of course, the opponent was Alcorn State. The competition was much stiffer in Maui – North Carolina, Marquette and Texas.
What matters, though, is that the Bulldogs are doing what they’re asked despite all the bad things happening around them. There are seven scholarship players available right now.
The current situation actually might provide benefits for this team over the long haul. At least, Ware believes so.
“That actually brought us closer together,” he said of the Maui trip. “We had trials and tribulations down there. … When we came back to practice, we were like, we’re not going to let anything that was in Maui carry over, except the motivation part where we need to get better, work hard, get better looks.”
Ware added that Ray told the players they were being selfish in Maui. They took that to heart, and I didn’t see a shred of selfishness on Tuesday.
These guys are listening. They get it. At some point, there should be a big payoff for that.
Brad Locke (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Mississippi State for the Daily Journal and blogs daily at DJournal.com.