By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
MSU held off South Carolina 56-54 in its SEC opener on Wednesday, buckling down defensively as freshman Craig Sword sparked the offense. On Saturday, State went on the road and knocked off Georgia, 72-61, behind junior Jalen Steele’s career-high 21 points.
The Bulldogs are 2-0 in SEC play for the first time in three years, and it’s a perfect start for a young team that’s been beset by injuries and suffered some bad losses. First-year coach Rick Ray has gotten his team to believe in his approach, even if it means winning ugly.
MSU returns home Wednesday to take on Highway 82 rival Alabama (9-6, 1-1), with tipoff at 8 p.m. on CSS. Then it’s off to Knoxville on Saturday to battle Tennessee (3 p.m., SEC Network).
Sword has raised his level of play the last two games. He’s scored 34 points, including a career-high 18 against South Carolina. Sword has made 12 of 21 shots and 8 of 14 from the free throw line. But he’s also committed 10 turnovers.
Freshman center Gavin Ware has played well this season, but he’s been quiet the last couple of games. He’s recorded six points on 3-of-8 shooting with 10 rebounds.
MSU’s RPI has gotten a big boost the past week, but it’s still only 238. A strength-of-schedule rank of 264 has something to do with that; South Carolina and Georgia are two of the conference’s weaker teams.
Conventional wisdom says MSU will suffer a lot of losses during SEC play, and making the NCAA tournament remains a long shot. But for a team so inexperienced, a 2-0 SEC start could pay dividends down the line and lead to an upset or two. The overall effort, especially on defense, has become a major character trait of this team.