"As much as you want to say they don't pay attention to the media, they know they've been picked last," Ray said. "Or been picked to not win five games." Now here the Bulldogs are two wins into the SEC schedule and 7-7 overall. "It makes those guys feel good about themselves and what they're doing here. I hope satisfaction doesn't set in."
It probably won't, and it certainly shouldn't. Beating South Carolina and Georgia is a fine start for any State team, last done in 2010 here; going 2-0 for this short-handed and oft-battered bunch is opening some eyes. But reality remains that teams are only as good as their last performance and the Bulldogs are about to get another and stiffer test, hosting Alabama (9-6, 1-1 SEC) Wednesday evening. Tipoff in Humphrey Coliseum is 8:00 for CSS telecast.
Ray's team returns home happy from Athens, having finally come out ahead in a true away game. It doesn't count any more on the record but the difference was discernible. "Obviously going on the road and getting a win was huge for us," said Ray. Better, was the way State gutted out another win against a Eastern Division opponent. Less than three days after edging the Gamecocks by two points, in a game where Dogs were dropping right and left with cramps and sprains and such, they outlasted Georgia in a noon contest.
"To find a way to win the game was really a tribute to our kids' toughness and perseverance." Mental toughness was involved too after the frontcourt was crippled by foul troubles leaving State not just short-handed but short, period. "A lot of times Fred Thomas was the tallest guy on the court for us," Ray noted. "And Colin Borchert was at the five-spot." This cost State in rebounding but they made up for it with better shooting overall and surprising outside accuracy. In fact, the 9-of-20 showing at the arc came after the Dogs were 0-fer against South Carolina on three-pointers.
Unpredictable, indeed. Unrelenting? Absolutely. And while Ray obviously would rather not have to cobble-together a low-altitude lineup every SEC game it's nice to know this bunch can play that way in need. Which with 16 more conference dates ahead they may have to a few more times.
The bigger, so to speak, concerns going to Georgia involved the health of guards Craig Sword and Jalen Steele. The former sprained an ankle and repeatedly cramped-up last Wednesday but kept playing and came through with the winning points. After not practicing, Sword put in 30 minutes for 16 points at Athens. That and his 18-point showing against South Carolina made him the SEC's Freshman of the Week.
Steele, who still at times shows some lingering effects from last year's knee injury and missed eight games this year with a cracked wrist, had an impressive bounce-back too. After a four-point night against S.C. the junior shot up Georgia, 4-of-6 at the arc included, for 21 points. Not only that but Steele slashed for seven rebounds helping State's small lineup survive.
"We started to set screens for him more, and ‘see' him more," Ray said. Meaning, teammates are getting used again to having Steele on the court and now are looking for him in open shooting spots. Or in locations where he can drive for shorter jumpers and layups. This in-turn is making SEC defenses pay Steele more attention, where before opponents felt free to sag on center Gavin Ware or help-off on forward Rocquez Johnson. And they were free for that because Steele's outside threat was missing.
"When it came down to it Jalen stepped up and made some huge shots," said Ray of Saturday's win. "That's what gave us separation, we were playing defense well but Jalen Rose up and made some shots." For that matter Sword and Thomas were 4-of-8 together at the arc, something the rookies have struggled to do in practices much less games. Not that Ray is drawing-up more plays to let these guards fire at will just yet, but…
"Our guys are taking good three-point shots now. At the beginning of the season we shot contested threes, but I think now they're taking good shots." By the way, the coach's definition of ‘good' shot doesn't mean it has to go down; just that it is attempted from an open look at the right point in the shot clock. Sword, Thomas, and point guard Trivante Bloodman are still collectively just 24% at the arc, but "Hopefully it bodes some confidence for the rest of the season."
It ought to bode well for backcourt confidence that State has won twice now while Ware has struggled offensively. The big freshman is showing some mid-season ‘hit the wall' signs as to be expected, averaging 21 minutes these two games. And SEC defenses (not that South Carolina and Georgia are big teams admittedly) have held him to just eight shots in two games, and nine rebounds. To Ware's credit he is not forcing anything offensively, and the attention he draws does open up teammates more.
Ray said not to draw too many conclusions about success playing small. It does have advantages in terms of pressing or getting on-ball defense at the perimeter. "Obviously it becomes a problem when they go into the paint or more importantly when a shot goes up." And rebounding is a struggle for this squad regardless of lineup.
Ironically the same holds for Alabama this season. Their frontcourt is being rebuilt too and Coach Anthony Grant is testing several combinations there. 6-8 soph Nick Jacobs has started both SEC games at big forward or center, with 6-8 freshman and Mississippi native Devonta Pollard an option at the other forward slot. 7-0 juco center Moussa Gueye gets more minutes off the bench though, so State is about to face real SEC size for the first time. Ray figures to put Ware on Jacobs or Gueye as needed, while Borchert or Johnson will chase Pollard first though Sword is likely to take some turns of his own.
Alabama's offensive strength is in the backcourt anyway, with Trevor Releford (16.3 ppg) running the show and Trevor Lacey (12.5) working off him. Though, as Ray said, Lacey has more assists than Releford. They have 48 treys between them on 40% accuracy, and Lacey doesn't shy from blasting to the basket either. For that matter Rodney Cooper and Levi Randolph are physical guards as well and a direct challenge to Thomas and Steele to handle man-on-man.
"The biggest thing with them is we've got to be able to defend the ball-screen action," Ray said. "They've got multiple guys that can cause problems. And we have to take care of the ball, they like to do a run-and-jump. Tennessee did a good job until the end, with three-straight turnovers against the run-and-jump." Which gave Alabama their margin of victory.
This is also an area of Ray's concern given how his team still loses the handle too often. Though, "Our assist to turnover ratio is getting somewhat better," he said. "That's a good predictor of how we're going to do offensively. And we've done a god job getting to the free throw line more than our opponents. we're not fouling on the defensive end and we're causing fouls on the offensive end."
And there's just the good feelings after a couple of wins. Though there are still issues and even new setbacks. Center Wendell Lewis is done for the year with his December kneecap surgery; and while freshman Jacoby Davis can resume practicing soon he won't play, nor will Andre Applewhite meaning there is still no true point guard. Ray can't relax the practice pace but this does come with a cost. Including the latest injury, as graduate manager Nick Lagroone tore a ACL in scrimmaging.
"You want to get your first unit out there and play against a second unit, but that's mostly a MASH unit now! And you want your coaches coaching, and not involved in all those drills."