Rick Ray and company are experiencing similar success in the first half of the SEC schedule than they did a year ago. The difference is that the Bulldogs are already winners of 11 games, one more than they had all of last year. Last week, MSU had a three point lead at Rupp Arena before running out of gas but came back to Starkville and defeated rival Ole Miss for the fifth year in a row.
"I thought it was a good opening week for us in SEC play," Ray said. "I thought we played really well starting off at Kentucky in the first half, we just didn't have enough bodies to sustain the success we were having there."
"I was really pleased with the way our guys dealt with some adversity against a good team like Ole Miss. In the past, we've always had some adversity against those teams and kind of folded. To face a run by them and still be able to pull that one out, I thought it showed some growth and maturity for our guys. "
The maturity was something that State didn't see much of last year. There were spurts in most games during the 2012-13 season where the Bulldogs couldn't recover from runs that the other team went on to. After an 11-point lead vanished and Ray's squad went down five to Ole Miss late, the Bulldogs found a way to win.
"We didn't drop our heads or stop competing but also we were able to drive the basketball. We didn't get caught up in the fact that we weren't making shots. We continued to put our head down and drive to the paint and we had some positive things happen from our ability to drive the basketball."
Another big addition to the team this season is having a natural floor general in freshman I.J. Ready. The talented point guard from Arkansas is learning his way around the SEC and Ray expects big things from him. He's shown maturity beyond his years.
"He has some attributes that are really uncommon for a freshman. He's got some things about him that make him a winner and he's got some calmness to him. He's calm, cool and collective and he's been in so many tense moments that it really doesn't bother him."
Ready could have the task of matching up against one of the conference's best point guards in Trevor Releford who is among the leaders in the SEC in scoring.
"I don't really know for sure how we're going to match that up for sure, but whoever is going to guard Trevor Releford is going to have a tough matchup because he's going to score the basketball. He's a guy that's been a prolific scorer for them since he's set foot on campus. He's the guy when they need a bucket they go to him. I think the thing that he's doing a lot better at is he's making three-point shots. I think he's averaging 22 points per game in these last four games and 18 on the year so he's a great scorer."
Ray has watched Releford develop over his career at Alabama and even in high school as the coach was running the roads looking for players at Purdue. The big difference that the second-year head man has seen is Releford's maturity on the offensive end to make players around him better.
"We actually recruited him a little bit when I was at Purdue we just weren't in the need of a point guard at that point and time," Ray said of Releford. "He has continued to get better as a basketball player and I think he's starting to understand how to use his teammates more. I think when he first got there it was more one-on-one. You've seen maturation in his game."
On Mississippi State's side, they've seen maturity from players in the same way. Junior forward Roquez Johnson has gone from quiet reserve player to major spark off the bench and a scoring threat. After scoring 20 for the second time this season against Ole Miss last Saturday, Ray doesn't want the spark man to get to comfortable just scoring the basketball.
"This is what happened to Roquez at the beginning of last season, he had some early success scoring the basketball and then he kind of went away from who he is. Today what Roquez is is an energy guy and he scores his points off of his energy. Now we can't get into this pigeon hold where Roquez is a scorer. The reason why he's scoring is because he's active. As long as he understands that he's going to be a good basketball player."
"Roquez's skill level is what has increased," Ray said of the junior. "He used to not be able to go left at all and not be able to make a 15-foot shot. He continues to develop those things. With his athleticism and toughness, I think it would be a shame if you didn't try to develop his skill level."
Colin Borchert has also seen his production increase, but Ray sees a player whose leadership ability has grown. The leadership grew so much so that the team voted him captain. What did Ray see from the talented forward on the recruiting trail?
"It was definitely all the tattoos," Ray joked about Borchert. "We needed a guy with sleeves in here. No, it was the skill level at that four spot. If you have a guy that can dribble, pass and shoot at that position I think it becomes a matchup problem for other teams and then puts them in a bind on what to do. We wanted someone like that who was a matchup problem. The key to that is when you find someone like that who has that skill offensively, is he willing to put his nose in there defensively? That's something you don't know in the recruiting process."
"He was named captain when we had the team vote. Those guys had respect enough for him to name him captain. I told my guys before they voted, don't vote for somebody just because they're a senior. Do it because they deserve it and because you respect them."
The development across the board is noticeable when you watch MSU play this season as compared to a year ago. Most noticeable is the defense finally coming up to Ray's standards. A squad that leads the league in steals is also starting to produce on the perimeter and limit three pointers made.
"I think our guys are starting to get it a little bit. I thought they hit some tough threes. I thought our guys did a pretty good job of contesting threes. I told our guys that we want contested jump shots. We don't want people in our paint, but we don't just want to give up open looks."
One of the main topics on everyone's minds these days is if freshman wide receiver De'Runnya Wilson will join the team. The talented pass catcher was the state of Alabama's top basketball player a year ago and chose the Bulldogs late in the process in hopes of playing both sports. After being present and on the floor during pregame warm-ups against Ole Miss as well as on the bench throughout the game, it would seem he's close to joining the team. Ray said there's plenty left to be discussed.
"I plan on sitting down with Dan and Bear and coming to a conclusion," Ray said Wilson's situation. "I just want what's best for Bear. We want to make sure that we're being fair to him academically and what he can do as a wide receiver for the football team because at the end of the day I think that's where his future lies. We don't want to do anything to hurt his development as a big-time wide receiver in the SEC and at Mississippi State first and foremost."
"School started (Monday) and he just got back so I'm going to sit down and talk to him after class and then sit down and talk to Dan. I don't know if that will be a conclusion or not but at least we'll sit down and talk."
So what does Bear bring to the table? As a wide receiver in the SEC, he showed great hands, athleticism and toughness. Ray sees a perfect fit in the post, a key positional need off the bench.
"He just plays hard. Like most football player he's got some toughness to him, he's not afraid of physical contact and he's a strong kid. But as far as what he can do on the college level I just don't know because he hasn't done it yet."
Add in the fact that Wilson hasn't even practiced with the team and it could be a difficult transition for him. With players already in basketball shape and knowing the offensive and defensive sets, he has work to do. Still, Ray likes the chances of putting him on the roster to help the team.
"It's hard on the kid because those other guys got a three to four month jump on him," Ray said of the transition. "I think if it does happen, Bear can help us in that emergency four situation. We just don't have anyone with size that can fill that emergency role at the four spot. I think that's a situation where that's his natural position and I think he can play that here."
With or without Bear, the show will go on Wednesday inside Coleman Coliseum. A big win against the rival is great for moral, but it's right back to competing.
"Now the key is for our guys to come back down and go and compete against Alabama. They do some things that give us problems. They press in the backcourt so we've got to not turn the ball over. The biggest thing is just getting our guys back in the mindset to go compete."