Mississippi State opened a lot of eyes on Wednesday night. The Bulldogs (10-4) went into Rupp Arena to face the #14 Kentucky Wildcats in front of a raucous 23,638 blue-clad fans. MSU has a depleted roster and bodies not quite fit for a front line like UK. Despite all of the disadvantages, the Bulldogs still found themselves with a three point lead at the half and went into the second half with a chance for the upset.
The size and depth of the Wildcats would eventually catch up with the Bulldogs as they would fall 85-63 with a rough second half stretch. Still, the performance let the rest of the conference know that Rick Ray's bunch won't be backing down any time soon.
"I thought we played our best basketball of the year," Ray said of his team's performance at Kentucky. "Probably the first 27 minutes of the game we were down 3 points at Kentucky. But that same bugaboo reared its head and we didn't handle adversity well. I thought that the fact we played really well in the first half was great, we just kind of collapsed. We have to lick our wounds and prepare for Ole Miss."
The Bulldogs are indeed waiting on Ole Miss later today as the Rebels are licking their own wounds heading to the Hump, a place that's been a personal purgatory for them over the years. The Rebels have lost four of their last eight games and hold the same 10-4 record as the Bulldogs.
Another obstacle facing the Rebels coming in is the loss of their star scorer, Marshall Henderson, serving his final game of suspension. Struggling to find a lead scorer without Henderson puts them in a similar position as MSU with the Bulldogs facing moments in games where they can't find a leader on offense outside of Craig Sword. Ray sees a scary player, however, in the form of Jarvis Summers.
I think regardless of Marshall Henderson, Jarvis Summers is a really good ball player," Ray said. "He shoots so well, and I think you can say he's one of the most improved players in the SEC. They do a really good job at making Jarvis a focal point so you want to focus on him."
Summers represents a similar mold than Sword but is a much more dangerous shooter while Sword is deadly on his drive to the basket. Summers shoots a solid 53% from three point range and is the Rebel's leading scorer outside of Henderson with 17.5 points per game.
For MSU, finding that consistent scorer outside of Sword has been difficult. Ray wants to see players like Jacoby Davis step up to the plate and become more formidable in the game plan. While Davis is arguably the team's best shooter, it's his defense that Ray needs to see improvement.
"I think Jacoby has done a pretty good job on the offensive end. The thing concerns me is on the defensive end," Ray said. "He's a point guard so he's out of place on the wing. I think he's done a good job with those minutes that he's earned. We've just got to continue to throw him in the fire and see how he performs."
The entire team was thrown into the fire last season making this year much more manageable in situations like they faced on Wednesday. For Ray, the fact his team showed no negative emotion was the biggest sign of improvement.
"I think we've got a pretty resilient bunch," Ray said of his team facing adversity. "I know some coaches go about it a different way. The crowd has never scored a bucket, blocked a shot or had an assist. Until they do that, it shouldn't affect our game. Our guys did a good job of that. They're not afraid. You never can win games in a hostile environment like that if your guys are afraid."
Ray took many more teaching points from that ball game starting with how well the Bulldogs played in the first half. To counter, the coach made sure his players understood what went wrong in the second half and how they could improve it.
"I think the one thing we talk about is the reason we have success," Ray said. "We show them reasons why we had success then in the second half show why we didn't. We have to understand that we have to play team basketball. When we get spread out on the defensive end and on our own on the offensive end then it becomes a problem."
Now Ray has to flip the script and get his team to play in front of a home-partisan crowd in Starkville on Saturday. While he expects a big crowd, he couldn't help but wish that the game was more favorable to MSU students who are still out of town.
"It's really a shame that we're playing our rival when our students aren't here," Ray said about the scheduling. "The students need to be here, because at the end of the day those are the guys that bring life and energy to the ball game."
"That win against Ole Miss last year, think we were on a 14-game losing streak, really meant a lot (to the program). Hopefully we get a great crowd tomorrow. It's an ideal time playing an afternoon game because people can get home when it's over."
MSU and Ole Miss square off on the hardwood later today at 3 p.m. with the game broadcast nationally on ESPNU. The Bulldogs have won the last four games in Starkville and 14 out of the last 15 at home with the one loss coming in 2009.