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September 28, 2013Mississippi State basketball coach Rick Ray endured one of the unluckiest seasons of basketball in recent memory. It just so happened that he was in his first year as the head man. He, like his young players, was thrown into the fire and had to find away to improve. It turned out to be an experience that the Bulldogs needed to help the young players prepare for the future in the SEC. Now with a full roster and a group of players a year older, he's ready for year two.
We had a chat with Ray and some players as they get ready for the start of the new season in just over a month.
On the improvement from this year to last:
"Obviously you want to see improvement. The thing that I was the most impressed by with each individual player on the team was that I saw that individual development from each player from the beginning of the school year to the end of the school year. I think with most of our guys the biggest jump that you make is from the first season of college basketball to the next and I think that's where we are right now. I'm seeing it, now they need to display it on the court. I think the biggest thing that has changed are our guys' bodies. I think Fred Thomas played this past season at about 190 pounds and now he's at 207 pounds. Chicken (Craig Sword) played at about 185 now he's at 199 pounds. Gavin Ware is the opposite. Last year he played at 275 and now he's down to 263 with the ultimate goal being 260 pounds. Trivante Bloodman I believe was at 180 pounds and he's at 190 pounds. I think the way the guys have changed their bodies in the weight room gives them a chance now to be successful on the court."
On having more players to practice with:
"I'll take non-scholarship players compared to scholarship guys. But obviously it's great because now you get a chance to get some competition in practice and that's something that we didn't get a chance to do is compete in practice five-on-five. Now we broke down and competed against each other 2-on-2 and 1-on-1 and 3-on-3 but we really didn't get that true competition on a day-to-day basis. I think it's going to be a huge help."
On now being able to play how he wants to play:
"I think we're going to play faster this year and pressure more this year, but it's got to be successful. That's what I tell our guys, I want a fast break and play faster but we've got to reduce our turnovers in order to do that. At the same time, on the defensive end I want to pressure more but we can't have the breakdowns that we do defensively. The success we have doing those things will depend on how much we amp it up in each department."
On leadership from the sophomores:
"I think first and foremost with that leadership is those guys getting comfortable with what they are on the team. I think at times, with Chicken or Fred, they didn't know what was going on as freshmen. I think it's kind of hard to have leadership qualities when you don't know what's going on. I think those guys familiarity with the program and what we're trying to do help those guys hopefully become better leaders."
On how he's changed from year one:
"I'm a year older, I don't know if I'm a year wiser so we'll go from there. There is a possibility that we can have less wins and more injuries, no one knows that for sure. You would hope that there's not going to be any possible way that we could have any more obstacles than we had the previous year. I always say to our guys, it's really hard to just say that I'm a year older so I'm a year better. What type of work did you put in during the offseason to be better? I think we have a situation where some guys assume that just because they've gone from freshmen to sophomores that they're going to be better and stronger. It's the work that you put in that will determine that if you're going to be a better basketball player and a better team and I think that remains to be seen. I think that our guys have individually had a good offseason but until you get out there and display it on the court by producing some wins, it's not enough."
On Colin Borchert's progression after a strong finish last season:
"I think Colin was arguably our best player down the stretch. In the last seven games he average 14.5 points and 7.5 rebounds and I think with Junior College kids it takes them a semester to figure out where their lot is on the team and I think Colin figured that out and took advantage of it. Now the key is, the way Colin played the last 10 games of the season, he needs to play that way the whole season. I think he did a good job with his body. We didn't want him to gain weight we wanted him to stay about where he was but just tone up and get stronger and I think he's done that. We need Colin to be successful in order for our team to be successful."
On Wendell Lewis' rehabbing from his injury:
"Well you know he had the unfortunate situation where he had to go back and have the second surgery and that set back his rehab. But as far as what he's supposed to do with the rehab, I think he did what he was supposed to do."
On newcomers Fallou Ndoye and I.J. Ready:
"I tell you what, the one thing that I covet is guys having a work ethic and the work ethic from I.J. and Fallou has been tremendous. Besides Jawan Johnson of guys that I've coached in my tenure, he's the fastest guy that I've ever seen with guys like that and also with the endurance. Fallou is going to be a good player. I think just sitting now is painful for him because he wants to play, but at the end of the day I think Fallou is going to go from a guy that's 210 pounds to 240 pounds and a guy that will develop in our program. When he hits the floor for the first time as a freshman, he'll be able to make a huge impact for us. I think I.J. character and will to win are going to be a huge addition for us and obviously we needed a point guard. We needed a guy that could handle the ball against pressure and get the ball down the court. I really think I.J. is going to make an immediate impact and make a difference right away for us because he just wants to win, he has a will to win."
On what he was able to do last season on offense and defense:
"I think it was a small percentage of what I wanted to do, it's hard to put a number on it. Just getting guys to pick up on what you want to do defensively; it's hard to get guys like Fred and Chicken to pick up on what you want to do there. They just got into the standpoint of us wanting to play hard defensively meant we had to steal the ball. I think sometimes getting guys to honor their assignments is really important. I can tell you this, I think that we'll be much improved as far as a knowledge standpoint from what I want and what the coaches want. I think that's pretty important."
On teams seeing MSU as a tough competitor win or lose:
"We've talked about this before as far as our mantra. We want guys to play harder than the other team, tougher than the other team and smarter than the other team. I think for the most part every time we stepped foot on the court we played harder than the other team. I thought from a physicality standpoint sometimes we just couldn't play tougher than the other team. In our last game against Tennessee I just thought those guys had too many big bodies we couldn't handle. I don't think that we succumbed to it, they just had bigger bodies and they played tougher than us. Obviously with our turnover ratio and the fact that we took bad shots, we didn't play smarter than the other teams. I think if we can focus in on those things, we'll have a chance."
On the tough season making the team and players better:
"I think the one thing that they got that a lot of freshmen don't get is opportunity. You can't say that they didn't come into a situation where they didn't get an opportunity. Now what they do with that opportunity remains to be seen. Did they learn from those opportunities? Hopefully that comes to fruition on the court by the way they play. I think Fred Thomas is going to be a good player because he has a high ceiling. If I had to give out an award to who improved the most in the offseason, I would give it to Fred Thomas because I think he did an unbelievable job at changing his body and buying in to it. He can lift all of the weights that he wants to lift, but he changed his eating habits eating six times a day. We can't be on him 24 hours a day just watching his caloric intake. What he did was he bought into it. I told him he could lift all he wanted to with Coach Akins but until he put some fuel into his body he's not going to gain that. To his credit, he did that. To see guys taking those steps, it shows that they care and if you care, you have a chance to be a good team."
On winning late in the season:
"I thought it was huge. The one thing that you never want lacking from your team is enthusiasm and I thought that we did a good job at that. We want to make sure that when we go into the offseason we go into a game, I want our guys to play with some enthusiasm for the game of basketball. I think if you don't do that you really don't have a chance to win."
On former players like Jarvis Varnado coming back to see the team:
"It's huge because you look up there and you see a huge mural of the guy that broke the NCAA record for blocked shots. Any time you mention NBA to college players, it gives them immediate street cred. He was also very complimentary to Gavin and Fallou about how much of a chance they have to be good basketball players. I thought that was huge for him to come back and have some workouts with our guys and also to workout with them in an open gym, but also to have some positive remarks to Gavin and Fallou for their chance to be good basketball players."
On players not having to take over as many roles this year:
"I think the most important thing that we want our guys to have is individual freedom and the ability for them to go out and make individual plays. To me, all I want to do is give them space and an opportunity to go make plays. The whole key to that is what do you do with that freedom? You can't be a selfish player. If you can beat your man 1-on-1 we want you to do that every single time. Every single cut that you make is to score. Now, once you draw help, what do you do? Are you the type of guy that kicks it out to the three point line? If Gavin is open down low because the defense helped up do you dump it down to him? Now you have that power and that's all we work on is that individual skill and development being able to break your man down 1-on-1, but now that you have this power how do you yield that power."
On his team being versatile:
"You want a guy that's a complete basketball player. For all the attributes that Michael Jordan had as a player, at the end of the day he scored the most in his first few years in the post. I talk to Fred Thomas about using his length in the post and having some post up opportunities and those guys kind of look down on him. You want to make sure guys are developing a total game."
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