“If we work as a team and go off each other, we’ll go real far,” the Mississippi State point guard said.
On paper, this was one of MSU’s worst basketball seasons in years. The Bulldogs went 10-22, finishing up with Thursday’s 69-53 loss to Tennessee in the second round of the SEC Tournament.
But the month of March saw MSU win three out of five games, including an upset of rival Ole Miss and an SEC Tournament victory over South Carolina. For a team that’s been riddled with attrition, injuries and suspensions ever since Rick Ray took over as head coach last April, this two-week stretch served as a glimpse of what the Bulldogs hope are better days ahead.
MSU shot better, saw many of its newcomers have big games, took better care of the ball, and continued to press on when things got bad. A 13-game losing streak that could have done in a team with less resolve didn’t break the Bulldogs apart.
“I’ve been in this business for 20 years, and I’ve never been in a situation where a team has dealt with this much adversity on and off the court,” Ray said.
By season’s end, MSU had just six healthy scholarship players, all but one of them newcomers. Four injured players were on the bench the final three games, including junior guard Jalen Steele, who on March 6 suffered the second major knee injury of his career.
Many opposing coaches have praised Ray for keeping the Bulldogs together, especially considering their youth. Ray credited the players.
“None of these kids knew me,” he said. “They could have said, ‘First-year head coach, I’m not going to play hard for him, not going to listen to him,’ and nobody did that.”
Freshman Craig Sword, who led the team this season in scoring at 10.5 points per game, said Ray kept the players motivated through all the adversity.
“He kept telling us, ‘Play hard,’” Sword said. “He never quit on us; none of the coaches quit on us. We fought for him like he fought for us.”
It’s a much different tone than the one that ran through this program just a year ago. In the 14th and final season under Rick Stansbury, the Bulldogs fell apart at season’s end amid locker room strife, exiting both the SEC Tournament and the NIT in the first round.
Despite going 21-12, there was not a good feeling among the players after that final game. Following the NIT loss to UMass, freshman guard Rodney Hood – who has since transferred to Duke – said there were character issues on the team going back to the summer.
There’s a much more positive vibe this time. Ray feels he has something to build on this offseason, and he’s eager to get his four injured players back and bring in the three signees.
That will make MSU full strength again. And it’s just another reason for hope.
“We’re going to be ready,” freshman guard Fred Thomas said. “We’re a team that’s learning right now, so it’s going to carry over to next year.”