Today’s game: South Carolina (10-3) at MSU (5-7), 7 p.m., ESPN3.com (Mike Gleason play-by-play, Nate Ross analyst), Sirius/XM 201.
Mississippi State opens SEC play tonight with seven healthy scholarship players, most of them inexperienced. One of those guys is freshman center Gavin Ware, who’s the subject of my game advance. The 6-foot-9, 265-pound Ware has become a consistent force in the paint for MSU.
He’ll need to play well against South Carolina, which enters this game with a deceptive record. In fact, the Bulldogs and Gamecocks share many similarities. Let’s do some comparisons.
According to RealTimeRPI.com, MSU’s RPI rank is 295 out of 347 Division I teams; South Carolina’s is 224. State’s strength of schedule rank is 284, while SC’s is 344. That tells you that the Gamecocks haven’t played a lot of tough competition, thus the 10-3 mark. One of those losses was to Elon – RealTimeRPI considers that a “bad loss” – and South Carolina had trouble dispatching South Carolina State last time out.
MSU owns an ugly loss as well, 59-57 to Alabama A&M on Dec. 30.
Both teams have first-year coaches, although SC’s Frank Martin does have previous head coaching experience, having had a successful run at Kansas State. Rick Ray is going through everything for the first time as a head coach. Both guys emphasize defense first. Both teams are prone to protracted scoring droughts. Both programs are trying to get back on their feet.
“I think all first-year coaches and their programs, you have your ups and downs. You’ve got your days that you kind of see a little twinkle of a light somewhere that kind of gives you hope to keep pushing and you might get to the end of that tunnel. And then there’s days you look out there and it’s dark as heck and you can’t figure out a way to get your head above water. But the kids have fought, they’ve competed, they come in every day.”
Can you guess which coach said that? It was Martin, but it echoes what we’ve heard from Ray throughout the season. It’s been rough, but his young team is doing what’s asked of it, and you can see a strong effort on the playing floor. Martin said that building up his program is akin to raising kids or teaching math. Ray can relate to that very well – he’s got two kids and holds a degree in applied mathematics.
“The thing as far as like raising a child, it more so has to do with off the court,” Ray said. “As a head coach in any program, you have a responsibility to try to make sure you’re doing the best thing as far as making kids become men and hold them accountable off the court and make them good citizens, too. …
“The math, sometimes it’s applicable, but the thing about it with math is once you learn math you’ve got to learn, you’ve got to go to a situation where it’s addition, and then it’s subtraction, and then it’s multiplication, and it’s division. Probably it holds true as far as what we’re trying to get our guys to do defensively and offensively and take it step by step.”
So who wins tonight’s game? Well, RealTimeRPI projects a 77-72 MSU win. The site also projects MSU to win four SEC games, South Carolina eight. Both of those totals seem rather optimistic. Vegas has State as a 2-point favorite.