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January 28, 2014

Rick Ray Looking for More Consistency with Still-Young Squad

It was a frustrating weekend in Oxford for the Bulldogs when they traveled to Tad Smith Coliseum and came up empty against the arch rival, Ole Miss. No one was as frustrated, however, as Head Coach Rick Ray who late in the ball game voiced those frustrations to Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson after words were exchanged.

Ray delivered a statement and apology on social networks on Sunday and even talked to Andy Kennedy and Marshall Henderson following the ball game. The late-game verbiage exchanged by Ray was also addressed by SEC Commissioner Mike Slive and the coach on Sunday.

"I talked to Commissioner Slive and like Commissioner Slive always says, our conversations will be private," Ray said of the incident. "One of our rules in our program is don't do anything to embarrass yourself, the basketball program, the university or your family. Obviously I did that and I have to make sure that I hold myself accountable too."

As far as the game went, the second-year coach was more frustrated with the play of his team after another rough performance away from Humphrey Coliseum.

"We continued our pattern of not playing well on the road but winning our home games with the 3-3 start," Ray said of his team. "The problem is now you come in with Florida who is #3 in the nation and it's going to be hard to get healthy against them. We've got o be up to the task with them."

It's a tall task indeed for a Bulldog team that has been up and down throughout the second year. The good news for MSU fans is that their team has shown signs of vast improvement. Still, the top-five Gators come to town as the unquestioned leaders of the pack in the conference. State hosts the #3 Gators for a nationally televised game on Thursday at 6 p.m.

"I just got done watching their game against Tenessee and they're picking up 90 feet and running and jumping," Ray said of the Gators. "They're not doing it the whole game, they're picking their spots to do it in and if they have success with it they continue to do it. He's done something different where he's done some run and jump into a 2-3 zone. I just think they're a phenomenal defensive team."

"They make mistakes on the defensive end, but their rotations to cover up for those mistakes is really phenomenal. They make multiple rotations on defense and keep you out of the paint," Ray said of the Gators. "On the offensive end, a lot of people run a ball screen motion but their ball screen motion is so fast so it's hard for you to get those assignments done."

For Mississippi State, Fred Thomas has become a defensive stalwart of his own as he's usually bridled with the task of guarding the opposing team's top offensive player. On the offensive side of the ball, Ray sees signs of improvement with Thomas, but there are areas that he needs to clean up.

"I think that he always has guys running after him and I think he should utilize his shot fake a little more," Ray said of Thomas. "I think he's had some open opportunities to make some shots and he's doing a good of trying to decipher the difference between a good shot and a bad shot. The think I like about Fred is that he has no ill intent at all. Sometimes he doesn't know the difference between a good and bad shot but he's not out there trying to be malicious with his shot taking."

"I think that Fred is for the team. I think he's doing everything that he can," Ray said. "I will say this, I thought he did a phenomenal job on Marshall Henderson. He made a couple of mistakes there, but I thought for the most part Fred chased him around and didn't get screened. It's a hard job to do."

The Bulldogs have missed the consistency of a point guard on the floor with freshman I.J. Ready in and out of the lineup after a few injuries has set him back. On Saturday, Ready was back in for MSU and played well following a concussion over a week before. A pass-first point guard, Ready is starting to use his jump shots to beat defenses.

"He's a guy that can make shots and a guy that can generate some offense for us," Ray said of the freshman. "Like any freshman, he's trying to find his way. He's had two injuries that's kind of knocked him off track a little bit but I think he's going to be fine."

Strangely enough, Ready might be one of the more mature players on the squad as Ray has mentioned time and again that he's a different breed of player. Part of the problems on the road and in certain miscues is not the talent on the team it's the youth of the team.

"We're still talking about guys that are prominent players, but they're all sophomores," Ray said of the mental development. "Trying to get those guys to make that jump from being a team that won 10 games last year to trying to go beat good teams on the road is a big jump. Now I'm just trying to make sure we close that jump. My biggest concern is making sure that we're competitive on the road. Once we become competitive we can make that jump and try to win those games on the road."

After MSU has their battle with the Gators on Thursday, they'll travel to Nashville for a showdown with the Vanderbilt Commodores. Ray sees some similarities between his first year's squad and what Vanderbilt is dealing with now with a depleted roster. Still, Ray handled a much more unique and dire situation.

"It's a little bit different for him because he already had a system implemented," Ray said of Kevin Stallings' Vanderbilt squad. "Last year I was trying to implement a system. I think he's a veteran ball coach and he kind of knows what his strengths and weaknesses are with his team. I think there's a difference in that than when you're trying to come in during your first year and build a program."

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