Call it chemistry. Call it efficiency. Call it anything, this would be one fine week for Mississippi State to regain the form that scored consecutive league victories early in the month. The Bulldogs (7-11, 2-4 SEC) certainly need to snap out of the current four-loss tailspin as they host Texas A&M (12-7, 2-4) Wednesday. Game time is 8:00 for the late CSS broadcast slot.
The schedule would seem to offer these Bulldogs their best shot, so to speak, at changing recent pace. Not only does State have an Aggie team on their own four-loss streak coming to Humphrey Coliseum, but Saturday brings another struggling Western Division guest in LSU.
“These are two winnable games, as coach said,” freshman center Ware agreed. “So all we have to do is believe in ourselves and our team and trust in one another to get it done.”
Thing is, Mississippi State cannot count too much on home court advantages at the moment. Not after lopsided losses to Alabama and Florida, who combined for the first consecutive 30-points of Bulldog defeats in Hump history. By the same token this week’s opposition is not playing on the same plane as the #8 Gators or the Crimson Tide. The trick, Dogs say, is to ignore names and play their own game.
“Any game is like that the way we approach it,” guard Craig Sword said.
Coach Rick Ray has had some things to say about how his Dogs have been approaching games, lately. The word that caught most Saturday attention was ‘selfish’ in regards to how the offense worked. Or didn’t rather as State shot 33% against the Gators. Ray was not implying that players were out for their own statistics though.
“When I say those guys were selfish, only in the aspect I asked them to use the shot clock more,” Ray explained Monday. He referred to a tendency, one which has grown in the losing streak, for Dogs to feel rushed, almost obligated even, to go do something on their own accord. The motive is honest, the results unfortunate as too often shots are forced. And, forced much too early in the 35-second clock.
“So I don’t want that to be a broad statement in general,” Ray said. “They didn’t do what we asked them to do so they were being selfish at that time.”
To their credit the Bulldogs understand. Agree, too. “Sometimes we don’t even realize that we’re being selfish,” said Sword. “But as Coach pointed out to us we have been doing some selfish things on the court.”
“It’s selfishness in all of us,” Ware said. “But we have to put it all on the table and learn from it and build on it.”
Ware is one Bulldog who could justify a touch of selfishness. He’s shooting 54% in SEC season, 100 points better than any teammate. But the rookie postman has attempted just 28 shots in the six games, or a single week’s work for backcourt Dogs like Sword and guard Fred Thomas. If this was simply a case of selective shooting, that would be one thing. Ware would like to have more looks and Ray certainly seconds the idea.
The challenge is everyone else making the conscious effort to get the ball inside to the big kid. “He is posting hard sometimes,” Sword said. “So we want to get him the ball, to open our game up. Mostly because they’ll start trapping him.”
Ware does indeed draw a lot of interior attention these days. Opponents can afford it since State is the least-potent perimeter scoring squad in the league for another week. “In any game that’s probably going to happen,” Ware said of tight coverage and post-help defenders. “So we just have to overcome that. Just try to get looks inside and out, and if it’s not working for me to pop it outside to the guards. We try to score inside and outside.” More successfully via the former as the stat sheet shows.
All the focus Ware is drawing comes at a price, sometimes painful. Literally that is, as Ware said of contesting for paint position with Gator big man Patric Young.
“That was a tough challenge. Instead of blocking-out normal skinny guys, he had some muscle to him. I had to man-up, any bruises he gave me to the chest or back of my head I had to suck it up and keep playing.” As he did, making 5-of-7 shots and notching his second double-digit scoring game in a row. Or more meaningfully maybe his first such outputs of SEC season, which has to be one encouraging offensive trend for State.
One show of improvement isn’t enough though. And Ware said he can see on video another area where the Bulldogs are backsliding. Some of the early-season effort, win or lose, displayed for forty minutes has been lost in mid-games. To some extent this was inevitable given a short roster of eight regulars, averaging from 19 to 26 minutes in SEC play. The anticipated wear is starting to show here a third of the way into conference season.
Still there is no reason for the spirits to tire, or for Dogs to get lax in the second and third game-quarters.
“One thing Coach pointed out to us is when we won the first two SEC games, then we lost the next two it was like we were going back to our old habits,” Ware said. Even more dangerous, Ware believes the team is relaxed and ready for the start of contests. “Then at the end when we’ve got ourselves in a deep hole we grind it out and keep playing. But one thing I need to work on is help my team stay on top (mentally) because that’s when we tend to get down in the game.
“I want to help my team out so we can keep the same motivation through the whole duration of the game.”
The Bulldogs had Sunday off so today was their first look at Texas A&M. Sword admitted he didn’t know anything about the individual Aggies yet, and his initial focus today was working on his own corrections and tweaks. The defense has made significant strides and he is earning quite a reputation already as a ball-hawk. And for fouling too, though he knows how to play smarter in this aspect.
“Yeah, I’m getting comfortable and I’ve been working on it in practice, staying in front of the ball and not reaching. And as far as turnovers, I just take care of the ball.” His shooting, 17-of-45 in the losing streak and 0-for-the-arc? “Yeah, I’ve got to work on that, too. I’ll feel like we’re down and I’ll be trying to make a play.”
Saturday’s game is part of Alumni Weekend, with over fifty former Bulldogs having signed on for a return to campus. They will be recognized during the game and have group events Friday evening and after the game.