By David Brandt
Mississippi State coach Rick Ray hopes a maturing roster, combined with a new point guard, will provide more wins during his second season.
The Bulldogs are coming off a rough season that ended with a 10-22 record, including a 4-14 mark in the Southeastern Conference. It was a roster comprised of nearly all first-year players and the result was plenty of lopsided losses.
But Mississippi State provided some hope for the future by winning of three of its last five – including an emotional victory over rival Mississippi. Now that young nucleus returns, hoping to become more consistent.
“The biggest jump you make as a basketball player is in your first offseason after playing college basketball,” Ray said. “And if you look down our roster, most of the guys coming back fit that description.”
Ray has emphasized defense from day one at Mississippi State, but it’s the offense that must improve. The Bulldogs barely shot 40 percent from the floor last season, including just 28.4 percent from 3-point range.
Guards Craig Sword and Fred Thomas, along with forward Gavin Ware, are the three main players that Ray hopes can make a big jump.
Sword led the team with 10.5 points per game last season. The 6-foot-3 sophomore proved to be an exciting playmaker, but struggled with his decision-making, averaging nearly four turnovers a game.
The 6-foot-9 Ware might have the most potential of the bunch. He averaged 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game last season, but struggled with foul trouble and conditioning.
The only major addition to the roster is 5-foot-10 point guard I.J. Ready, who has a chance to start immediately. Ray said he doesn’t expect Ready to be a high scorer, but loves his toughness and ability to make his teammates better.
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
SECOND YEAR SUCCESS: Mississippi State coach Rick Ray says college players make their biggest jump in production between years one and two. The Bulldogs have a roster full of guys who match that description. Guards Craig Sword and Fred Thomas, along with forward Gavin Ware, form a nucleus of sophomores that Ray hopes can mature quickly.
SWORD AND THOMAS: Sword and Thomas provided some encouraging moments for the Bulldogs in year one – especially on the defensive end. But both must become much more consistent on offense. Sword led the team with 10.5 points per game last season but struggled with turnovers, averaging nearly four per game. Thomas has a pretty shot, but it didn’t go in the hoop much last season. He shot just 32.8 percent from the field last season.
BIG MAN WARE: Maybe the most talented player on MSU’s roster is Gavin Ware. The 6-foot-9, 268-pound forward has good moves and a soft touch around the basket, averaging 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds a game last season. Now the big man must improve on his conditioning and foul trouble issues, because when Ware isn’t on the floor, the roster gets thin very quickly.
IS IJ READY?: Mississippi State will be counting on 5-foot-10 freshman point guard I.J. Ready to play serious minutes during his first season. Ray doesn’t need the Little Rock, Ark, native to score a lot of points, but he does need the shifty playmaker to distribute the ball and push the tempo on offense. His presence allows others – like Sword and Thomas – to slide into their most nature position on the wings.
INJURIES AND FOULS: Just like last season, Mississippi State is extremely thin at all positions. The Bulldogs come into the season with only nine or 10 serious candidates to receive playing time and any amount of injuries or foul trouble could prove too much for this group to handle.