By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
There is a void of leadership on Mississippi State’s team, but Craig Sword has been doing what he can to fill it.
He’s only a freshman, of course, but he’s got as much experience as any of the other MSU players on the floor. The Bulldogs (9-21), who open SEC Tournament play on Wednesday against South Carolina (14-17), are playing with six scholarship guys and two walk-ons.
Sword, a 6-foot-3 guard, is one of three freshmen who’re starting, and the other starters are junior college transfers. Sophomore Roquez Johnson comes off the bench and has played well of late, but he barely played last year and missed three games earlier this season with a suspension.
In his last two games, Sword has averaged 19.5 points on 14-of-26 shooting, and he was named the SEC freshman of the week on Monday. He’s starting to show the signs of growth that coaches hope to see out of freshmen at this point in a season.
“I’ll tell you one thing that he has really, in my mind, has gotten better at is his pace has changed,” MSU assistant coach Chris Hollender said. ”He’s got a motor and he can go extremely fast all the time, and what we’re trying to get him to do is slow him down and see things consistently.
“I think he’s done a really good job of changing pace and slowing down when he needs to, and recognizing situations throughout the games.”
Sword’s quickness is an asset and allows him to blow past defenders, but it’s also a liability because his decision-making often can’t keep up with his feet. That’s a big reason he’s averaging 4.3 turnovers per game.
Plus, the thin roster has forced him to be the backup point guard and handle the ball a lot. That role has forced him to be a catalyst, which is something that seems to come natural to him.
In last week’s 79-72 loss at South Carolina, Sword scored 11 points over a stretch of 4 minutes, 15 seconds as MSU cut a 22-point deficit to five points. Against Auburn, he scored 13 points after halftime and nailed the game-winning free throws in overtime.
“Craig is that guy for us who has to be able to get in the lane and go make plays when we can’t find offense,” head coach Rick Ray said.
For the season, Sword is averaging a team-leading 10.3 points per game to go with 2.3 assists and 1.6 steals.
In two games against South Carolina this year, he has scored a total of 38 points, so coach Frank Martin knows Sword will be a handful again Wednesday.
“He’s got good size, he’s got real good athleticism, and he understands how to play,” Martin said.
And Hollender believes Sword knows how to lead. For this team, that’s an invaluable commodity.
“His personality and his ability to communicate with people and his wanting to win and willingness to compete make him a natural leader for us in the locker room,” Hollender said.