Mississippi State basketball was decimated last season. Attrition from players leaving for the NBA, transferring out from the previous regime, being dismissed by the current one or just plain injured kept the Bulldogs from being able to even practice like a normal team much less play like one. Still, Rick Ray and his squad complained about exactly nothing. The coach knew who his team was and that was just as good as having a full squad and not having a clue what he was working with.
Now coming into year two, Ray has been blessed with at least bodies to practice with. Veterans Jalen Steele and Wendell Lewis both left the team less than a month ago and now Ray is left with all of his players with the exception of one in Rocquez Johnson. One of the most Rick Ray players that you might find on this team is freshman point guard I.J. Ready. A kid who's name has come up in circles around the state of Arkansas for the past two years, Ready is making noise already in year one after a solid scrimmage last week.
"I just wanted our guys to get out there and compete. I really wasn't concerned with the fans and putting on a show, I just wanted our guys to compete against each other," Ray said of his team's scrimmaging. "I think what you saw is we switched one guy, a little 5-10 freshman point guard, and it changed everything for both things. He's a significant difference as far as our toughness and guys competing. It really shouldn't be that way as an incoming freshman as a guy that little, but he's got that much desire. That much natural instinct as a point guard really makes a difference."
Ready has lots of tools working in his favor and was a player that Ray locked down early shortly after being hired at MSU. The coach knew he had something special coming to his team the next season and now he's hoping to reap the benefits of that this year.
"He's just a sound basketball player. He knows how to do everything; he can do things off the ball screen and do things off the cut," Ray said. "He knows how to find open people and he's not a selfish ball player. But the biggest thing about him is his willingness to compete."
The "little 5-10 freshman" took over the game for both teams when he was in. A penetrator and facilitator, Ready gives the Bulldogs something they didn't have all of last year and that's a true floor general. Ray said that what the fans and media now see is something he's seen out of the freshman since he got to Starkville.
"He hasn't done anything different that he's done the rest of practice so it's not something that's eye-opening. He's played well throughout all of our practice situations," Ray said of Ready. "It allows Chicken (Craig Sword) not to play the point guard position. It allows him to play that natural two-guard position where he can get kick-aheads and go attack the defense. Chick is not great bringing the ball up the court because he's not facilitated that way. He's more facilitated to breaking you down."
Even with Ready running the point and Sword able to move to his natural position, Ray would like to get last year's point guard back in to challenge Ready and give the Bulldogs more depth. When he gets back, MSU has many more options than they did a year ago.
"Obviously not having Trivante Bloodman out there who I think is probably improved more than anyone else on our team in the offseason, that's a huge difference. When Trivante Bloodman is out there, now I.J. has someone to compete against."
Another combatant that Ray has to work with this year beyond injuries and still lack of bodies is more enforcement from the officials to knock out the pretty physical college basketball game. Ray loves the physicality and that's what his offense and defense revolves around. He's trying to get his kids used to the play and working physical without fouling. Because, well, there's not many options on the bench if foul trouble ensues.
"They've said they're going to clean the game up so they're calling it like they said they would call it. I'm not surprised by that at all. I think what you don't want to do is teach your guys how to foul. You've still got to be tough and hard-nosed but you can't set your guys up for failure. We don't have depth on the frontline, so I'd be a fool if I didn't make sure I was adhering to the changes."
Part of that same offense and defensive style that he's teaching is moving the ball as much as possible without dribbling. This was never more evident than when the Maroon squad took the ball off the backboard for a rebound, threw four passes down the court and laid the ball in. All was done without one dribble of the ball.
"That's what you'd like to see, more advanced passes and more guys sharing the basketball without dribbling. Obviously, you need to dribble to facilitate at times but as much as we can we like freedom of movement without pushing the ball ahead."
Now as the season gets closer and closer with only a couple of weeks remaining until first tip, Ray sees a huge difference in his second team than his first. That was expected as he said the biggest improvement for players must be after their first season on campus. Count that a success for his crew.
"I think if you look at our team, the biggest jump that you make as a basketball player is that first offseason after playing college basketball. If you look at our guys, most of those guys coming back fit that description. All of those guys coming back should have made their biggest jump that they're going to make as a college basketball player. If you look at our bodies, Fred Thomas is a different person at this point in time and I'm really happy with the jumps that he's made so far."