By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Mississippi State was slammed back to Earth on Wednesday night. Today, the Bulldogs try to pick themselves up.
The key: Stay grounded.
MSU (7-8, 2-1 SEC), which visits Tennessee (8-7, 0-3) for a 3 p.m. tipoff (SEC Network), is hoping to shake off Wednesday’s 75-43 home loss to Alabama. First-year coach Rick Ray said his young team had lost some of its edge during a three-game winning streak.
“I always say that reading the press clippings is like poison. The poison can’t hurt you unless you drink it,” Ray said. “Those guys started looking and seeing themselves in the media and got kind of satisfied with where they were, and we can’t be that way. We can never be satisfied.”
Alabama gave MSU fits with a full-court press, forcing 21 turnovers. Tennessee isn’t a pressing team, but second-year coach Cuonzo Martin puts a big emphasis on defense.
Ray knows Martin well, as the two were together on Matt Painter’s staff at Purdue for two seasons. Both coaches run a motion offense and preach hard-nosed defense.
“The big thing is with Tennessee, I know Cuonzo Martin, and they’re going to compete,” Ray said. “We’d better get ready to just go out and compete. It’s not going to be an X’s an O’s situation, it’s going to be like, are you ready to play competitive basketball?”
Tennessee is trying to break out of a funk, having lost its last four games. The Volunteers haven’t started 0-4 in the SEC since 1994. They’ve lost the three league games by an average of 10.3 points, and 34 percent of the scoring has come from guard Jordan McRae, who’s averaging 23.3 points in SEC play.
No other player is averaging double figures during that span.
“This is the sort of hole we can get ourselves out of,” McRae said. “But these next couple of games are must-win, so we’ve got to do whatever we’ve got to do, watch film and try to get it straightened out.”
A good way for Tennessee to solve its scoring woes would be by creating turnovers and getting into transition. That’s one area MSU will be working on improving – it’s got the league’s worst assist-to-turnover ratio.
MSU guard Jalen Steele, a Knoxville native, knows the key to winning today.
“Cutting down on turnovers. Get all the second-chance balls and all the loose balls, and come out there and expend all the energy on the court. Put all of it on the court and don’t save nothing, don’t hold back.”