Rick Ray just concluded his first season as a head coach at Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs were undermanned for the entire season due to multiple injuries, suspensions and attrition. But MSU still managed to win 10 games including a game in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Ray sat down with the media this week to wrap up his first year in Starkville.
"I wanted to just summarize the season. I'm really pleased with the fact that two of our kids ended up on the All-Freshman team. I think you could've made a valid case that Fred Thomas to that as well. I think Kentucky had multiple guys on that All-SEC freshman team but for us to have two on there and the only other school to have that is Kentucky I most proud of that. What I'm proud of is the continued individual improvement of our kids throughout the season.
"I think people said Gavin Warewas a problem down low for teams and they started to focus in on that. I think he has to focus on making his teammates around him better.
"I think Chicken (Craig Sword)continually got better in his distribution of the ball. For that young man to take on that much load as far as being a penetrator and being a distributor by constantly reducing his turnovers was a positive. I think Fred Thomas started to display better shot selection and I think he's going to be a good player for us.
"I think you could see Colin Borchert became that became a skilled versatile 4-man and I think the knock on junior college kids is people expect them to come in and be instant impact guys. Those guys have to go through a transition to Division 1 basketball as well.
"Trivante Bloodman was a worrisome part for us in the beginning of the season and I thought he became rock solid. He still needs to improve but he went to a player that didn't turn the basketball over much.
"Tyson Cunningham became a guy that was a walk-on to a guy that became a dependable role player. Even Baxter Price even continued to improve. Roquez Johnson accepted who he is toward the end of the season. At the beginning of the season he was a energy guy that came in and made hustle plays and I thought he got away from that a little bit. After the suspension, he realized what his role is on the team.
"Moving forward from the individual performances, there's three areas of concern that we need to concentrate on. I think we have to work on our strength and conditioning. I think if you watch the physicality of our game between Tennessee, you'll see the difference between our team and Tennessee. That's not a unfair knock on our players or coaches or Coach (Richard) Atkins. There's just one player that has been in our offseason program. In junior college they don't have the wherewithal to lift weights and get bigger and stronger. This will be the first true offseason for our kids and we have to take advantage of that.
"Each one of our guys has to get bigger and stronger. I just don't like the fact that we got pushed around in that game against Tennessee. That needs to be a focal point of our team and not just individually.
"The other thing in terms of statistics is we talk about playing harder, smarter and faster than the other team. For the most part, we always played harder than the other team. The toughest factor and that goes to our rebounding margin. There's 345 Division 1 teams and we were 304th in the nation in rebounding margin. You need to finish a possession with a rebound.
"The second thing is once again there's 345 teams in Division and we were 342nd in assist-to-turnover ratio. We're not giving ourselves a chance to score and win basketball games if we're going to be that bad taking care of the basketball and that's the smartness factor. Those are the things we want to improve on.
"The one thing is our guys have to understand is don't make assumptions. Don't assume just because we'll have 13 scholarship guys that we'll be a better team. You have to make sure you're putting in the work to get better. Don't assume that just because you're a year older, you're going to be better. You have to put in the time in the offseason to get better. I think we have a bright future and I'm looking forward to coach a full squad."
Do you have individual meetings with each player after the season? How are those?
Ray: We are going to have those. We are going to have a team meeting tomorrow. We'll talk about some of the team things that we need to address and I'm going to give those guys some paper work to look at. I want them to fill out some things, come back to me and meet with me individually to share their thoughts about where they need to go as a player and where we need to go as a program.
I think you have to be on the same page with your kids. I don't want to put impressions into their minds, I want them to share what their ideas are as far as where they have to come and where they have to go.
I think you'll see sometimes when you give guys what they need to get better at, it's a lot different than what they think. I want to kind of see what they think first and then we'll sit down and will meet about what's really real.
Kind of like self evaluation?
Ray: Not self evaluation. More so, what they think of their game. The kids perception of their game and your perception of their game, which is really the reality, my perception is reality, is sometimes two different things. We need to make sure we merge those two things together.
You go from having just one point guard to having a good battle at that position next year.
Ray: I think the first thing our guys need to realize, there's going to be competition for minutes. We were really lucky as a staff this year, that we didn't have to deal with disgruntled players. There was nobody complaining about playing time. Now you go from a situation where nobody's complaining about playing time to next year there's going to be some problems as far as there are going to be guys that played a lot of minutes this year that won't play a lot of minutes next year.
There is going to be guys sitting out or coming in that expect to play a lot of minutes, that will not play a lot of minutes. There is going to be a situation now where we have competition for those spots. I think with the competition at the point guard position, Trivante Bloodman did a stand-up job for us. He's going to have to get better because he's going to have to fend off competition from Jacoby Davis and I.J. Ready.
I think think Craig Sword no longer play any point guard. He'll play two and so now there's a war there between Craig Sword and Jalen Steele. It will be interesting to see how those guys play that out. I'm going to tell them, I don't decide the playing time. You guys decide the playing time. Why would I not want to play a good player to help us win?
With a complete roster next year, when you meet with your players, do you want to receive input from them concerning how things will be different next year?
Ray: I don't know more so input. Just because of the numbers of where we were at, it was almost impossible for us to play fast all the time. I want a style of play and I want up-tempo, but you've also got to be smart too. I thought we did a pretty good job of pushing the basketball on misses and playing up-tempo on misses, but on makes because of our decision making for the most part.
We were so bad as far as turning the basketball over, we really put the brakes on makes and walked the ball up the court and gave them more entries and sets. What I would like to see for us next season, is on a make, first of all I would like to get more misses, more stops.
You don't want to have to worry about what you're doing when the other team scores the basketball. It's a reality. The other team is going to score. I would like to see us more free flowing. I don't want my team looking at me after a make as far as what we're going to run.
I'd like for it to be more of a free flowing offense. We just didn't have that opportunity this season. That's one thing I'm really going to focus on. Giving our guys a way to play on makes, where it's not a slow down, it's more of lets blow the ball up the court and get right into basketball.
How many guys do you prefer to be in your rotation?
Ray: I don't know. I think for the most part, you're going to play nine guys. I think what you'll see most teams will play two point guards, they'll have a rotation of three guys at those two wing spots, they'll have back up forward and back up five. I think that's probably what we're looking at. You're always going to have a guy, that's a 10th guy, that gets involved in the rotation because of foul trouble or guys simply not doing what they're supposed to be doing either on the court or off the court. I would say probably in an ideal world, playing about nine guys with the 10th guy being a role guy.
Do you anticipate having everyone back next year?
Ray: That's my anticipation at this point in time. We have our season ending meetings and we may sit down with a young man and he doesn't feel what we talk about as far as what we move forward his role on the team and where our team wants to go. It's not something he wants to do or be a part of and I totally understand that.
At this point in time, from talking to our guys and being around our kids, I don't anticipate anybody not coming back. There may be some things as far as a guy not being happy with his situation or a guy doing something he's not supposed to do in the offseason that changes that. My anticipation is that everybody will be coming back including Wendell Lewis.
And talk about if that happens and everyone does come back, how that helps to balance things out?
Ray: I can't speak on all likely attrition beforehand. I can tell you we need guys to start to matriculate through our team. We'll have a lot of guys coming back next season but we'll still be dependent on some young, inexperienced guys that haven't played college basketball yet. Gregg Ellis had a stat in there as far as us being one of the youngest teams in the nation as far as experience.
I still think we'll be inexperienced next season because we will be dependent on some of these guys that have been hurt, or that are coming in as freshman or junior college guys. We'll still be inexperienced. I would like for us to not lose guys so we can start matriculating guys through the program and getting some experience.
Will recruits be in summer school?
Ray: The way our summer school was set up, it's almost impossible for our incoming guys to get here for our first summer session. Because of the fact they don't graduate and you have to go through the NCAA eligibility center. So by the time you get all of that stuff back, we are well within our first summer session. I anticipate everyone being here for the second summer session. Some of our guys that need to be around or want to be around for the first summer session will be here.
What is the progress of your injured players - Jacoby Davis, Andre Applewhite and Wendell Lewis?
Ray: To my knowledge, and talking with (Scottie (Johnson) and the other trainers and doctors, everything is on pace and everything is going fine. Obviously Jacoby was cleared. He was full board 5-on-5 contact so there are no limitations on him. The only limitation he still has is he's wearing a brace right now. From my understanding, Andre Applewhite is on schedule. Same thing with Wendell Lewis, he's on schedule. Jalen Steele ad his ACL surgery (Wednesday), also having his two meniscus repaired.
Will you also evaluate your first year as a head coach?
Ray: I think you're not being very smart if you don't do some self evaluation. What I like to do is send some tape of our team to some of the guys I really trust in the business. We'll reciprocate that and we'll break down film and talk about some of the things they liked that we did and I'll do the same. But more importantly just sitting down with my staff and talk about what set plays you thought were effective. The way we played defensively what did you like and what you don't like. What do we need to do to be more effective guarding ball screen action. Or rebounding. I just think you are always in self evaluation phase to maximize your team.
Was there ever a point in the season with the injuries and suspensions where you just said 'you got to be kidding me'?
Ray: Obviously when the injuries piled up you get in a situation where what else can happen? What else can go wrong? But at no time did I feel as a leader of this program. You are running a company. Guys look to you for their attitude and if I show weakness, my team will show weakness. I don't know what it is about me but I don't let outside factors affect me.
When I go back home to Kansas City a lot of my friends that I grew up with are still on the street corner. They give you the sob story that they grew up in poverty. You know my mom was on crack and I just didn't have a good upbringing. And my response to that is always yeah, you knew that. That was 30 years ago. Get over it. You know the circumstances and it's your job to get over those and move past those circumstances. That's the way I am with my team. Hey we have an ACL injury, we've got low bodies, but we got to find a way to get past that and continue to go out and compete. I'm not a very sympathetic person. Most people have figured that out by this point in time. My wife hates I'm not very sympathetic.
What was your toughest challenge this year?
Ray: I think the toughest challenge for me is figuring out a way for us to practice. We were never able to go 5 for 5 until the very end when Jacoby Davis got cleared. Trying to find a way for our guys to be competitive in practice, but also not wearing those guys and killing them in the practice sessions. To me just trying to find a way to be creative in practice to make our guys play hard and still be competitive, but also not going overboard.
In recruiting do you look ahead in future years and save scholarships for this particular class or that particular class?
Ray: Yeah, but I think the one thing you've got to keep in mind when you're talking about recruiting is the fact that just in day and age of college basketball, there's going to be transfers.
You can't go out just trying to plug in holes or saving scholarships and things like that, because now you're in a situation where you're planning for the future, and the future changes in a second because a young man comes in your office and tells you he's not happy because of his role here, and he wants to go someplace else. To me, we have to go out and get guys that fit what we want to do here and fit the way we want to play basketball. And more importantly, fit in to our team structure on the court and off the court.
I'm looking for talented players that are good people - end of story. I told my staff, I want to go out and find guys that love to play and hate to lose. Pretty simple. Find guys that love to play and hate to lose.
Can you find that in an AAU type situation when they play so much, or do you take a different philosophy there?
Ray: I think AAU gets a negative knock. It's just a part of what they do now. You still want to be able to go out and find competitive kids, it's just when a kid goes out and plays AAU, it doesn't necessarily make him not competitive. Marcus Smart played AAU for Oklahoma State, and he's probably one of the most competitive kids I've ever seen. AAU gets a knock, like, that's what's the ill of all of college basketball, and it's just not true.
How excited are you about having more 'toys' to work with next year, better depth?
Ray: I get excited about the competition that's going to happen at those particular positions and the way each competition is going to push each person to get better. That's what I get excited about. Because with every positive, there is a negative. I talked about this a little bit in the fact that I'm excited about having these toys, as you want to call it, to play with, but also you're going to have to deal with some guys being disgruntled about what their role is on the team because of these new toys.
The thing that's going to happen here that we have to be prepared for, and our players have to be prepared for, is competition for those minutes. You go from a situation where there's exactly zero competition for those minutes to now there's an ultimate amount of competition for those minutes. I don't foresee us being a situation we can redshirt many guys. It's just the way it is because a lot of these guys have used up their redshirt year because of injuries.
Will having more bodies allow you to have more freedoms on the court?
Ray: The bodies will allow us to, first of all, be more physical. I want to be a lot more physical on the defensive end. The second thing is offensively it allows us to play faster, especially on makes. The one thing that happens is we're not able to play fast in practice because we were playing against old coaches and managers, so now in practice we have a chance to play fast. Chip Kelly they don't just go out and play fast in games, they practiced that in practice. So we have to practice the way we're going to play, and it's just impossible to practice that with the numbers that we had.
Do you have to break old habits of guys who've been going at slower pace?
Ray: I don't know if we have any habits yet. Because of the numbers that we have, we weren't able to get those habits, so I don't know if we necessarily have to break them. The one thing that happens all the time is kids and fans and everybody talks about wanting to play fast. Kids talk about, i want to play fast. But then when you get into the conditioning part of playing fast and actually practicing fast, all of a sudden they're not as interested in playing fast. You can't just go out in a game and play fast, you have to actually practice that.
Is that a recruiting tool, playing fast?
Ray: There's no coach in America that talks about they're going to play slow. Every coach in America says they're going to play fast when they're recruiting. Whether you actually end up doing it or not, that's on the kid's responsibility to go and do the research and watch the team actually play and see what they go. But there's not one coach in America that's going into a home with the recruiting tool of we're going to play slow.
Q: You've coached at different spots, did you have sense of SEC not being any different from other leagues, that basketball is basketball?
Ray: First of all, I don't think I've coached a lot of places. If you look at my coaching resumé compared to a lot of other coaches, I've been at different places for a long time. In any business, as far as coaching, you have to bounce around a little bit. I was seven years at Indiana State, I was four years at Purdue. The second point of it is, I agree with you to a degree, that basketball is basketball. But I think the thing that happens here a little bit more in the SEC, I think people press a little bit more in the SEC, and I think the sheer volume of athletes that you have to deal with. Those are the two biggest differences I saw in the SEC compared to other places I've been.
Do you think the SEC is more about trying to develop athletes into basketball players these days?
Ray: I think everything is different. The way we want to play with the motion offense and wanting more skilled guys, it is like in Indiana and Illinois people grew up worshiping Bobby Knight. So many people, that is what they do - play motion offense and play with skilled guys. Whereas in the South, people probably grew up watching Nolan Richardson and those guys press so that is their style of play. So I don't think it has to do with the athletes. It has to do with the coaches' influences in that particular area.
Outside of patience, what did you learn the most about your team in your first year?
Ray: I don't know if I learned patience because I still expected us to win and be good every single game. I don't know if I did learn any patience.
But I think what I did learn is that kids are coachable. I think some people say 'hey, this kid is uncoachable and things like that'. I think kids want to be coached and want that discipline. For the most part, you didn't see kids trying to fight what we were trying to do. That is the thing I learned. There are a lot of different people that come from different backgrounds as far as these kids. But at the end of the day, I think they want that discipline, want to be coached and want to do the right things.
You just have to make sure you hold up your end of the bargain and make sure they adhere to those things.
Was there one defining moment you can point to with this past season?
Ray: I don't know if there is one particular moment or thing I can point to. Obviously the win here against Ole Miss was huge because of the student body population coming out and supporting us. It could've been a situation where that student body population comes out and we lay an egg and they are like 'I'm not coming back to watch that'.
But I think we showed them this is the way we want to play and there is going to be some excitement in The Hump. I think that was good from a standpoint of you beat your rival and had a positive atmosphere. I think the kids walked away from that situation with the fans and the student and said this is something we can build on.
I think the other positive thing is that young nucleus that we have. I think everybody sees that young nucleus we have has a chance to make us a good basketball team. Not just in the future but in the near future.
Does the different criteria the NCAA Tournament committee has every year, does it affect the way you schedule?
Ray: I don't think you can let it affect the way you schedule. I think you have to schedule with what is best for your individual team and your particular conference. The thing I will say with like Tennessee, I thought that was an NCAA (tournament) team. I think they had a tough schedule, beat some quality teams and I was really surprised they didn't get into the NCAA Tournament.
But as far as the criteria for people to get in, nobody knows. Nobody is in there behind the closed doors and knows what those individuals are talking about in that committee. So until they let us into that process and let us know what they talked about and what were the eliminating factors and why they let this team in or why they didn't let this team in, I think all we can do is speculate. You are kinda rolling the dice if you start to speculate on what those guys are thinking.