Mississippi State men’s basketball coach Rick Ray officially begins year two when the Bulldogs begin practicing on Monday. Ray fielded questions from the media Friday afternoon in advance of practice starting.
Here is a full transcript…
Q: Going into your second season, what do you expect from your team from a growth standpoint?
Ray: Obviously you want to see improvement. The thing I was most pleased with, with each individual person on our team, is I saw that individual player development from the beginning of the school year to the end of the school year. So now, I think with most our guys, the biggest jump they will make is having their first offseason after playing your first season of college basketball.
So I think that is where we are at this point and time. I am seeing it and now they need to display it on the court. I think the biggest thing is it changes our guys’ bodies. I think Fred Thomas played this past season at about 190 pounds and now he is at 207 pounds. Chicken (Craig Sword) played this past season at about 185 pounds and now he is at 199 pounds. Gavin Ware is the opposite and he played last year at 275 and is now down to 263 pounds with the ultimate goal of being 260 pounds. Then Trivante Bloodman, I believe was at 180 pounds and now he is at 190 pounds.
I think the way our guys have changed their bodies in the weight room gives them a chance now to be successful on the court.
Q: How good does it feel to have scholarship players actually practicing against scholarship players this year compared to last year?
Ray: Well, I will take non-scholarship players compared to just scholarship guys (laughing). But obviously it makes a difference because now you get a chance to get some competition in practice. That is something we didn’t get a chance to do was compete in practice 5-on-5. Now we broke down and competed against each other 1-on-1 and 2-on-2 and 3-on-3. But we didn’t really get that true competition on a day-to-day basis with the 5-on-5. So I think it is going to be a huge help.
Q: With those extra bodies compared to last year, how much this season will you be able to play the way you prefer as far as up and down the court?
Ray: Well, I think we will play faster this year. I think we will be able to pressure more this year. But it’s got to be successful and that is what I tell our guys. I want to fast break and I want to play fast. But we got to reduce our turnovers in order to do that. At the same point and time on the defensive end, I want to pressure more but we can’t have the breakdowns we have defensively. So it depends on how much success we have doing those things will determine how much we amp it up in each department.
Q: Some of last year’s newcomers said now they feel more comfortable being able to lead this year.
Ray: I think first and foremost with that leadership is those guys being comfortable with what they are on the team. I think at times with Chicken and Fred and those guys that are sophomores now, they didn’t know what was going on as freshmen. So I think it is hard to have some leadership qualities when you don’t know what is going on. Just those guys’ familiarity with the program and what we’re trying to do helps those guys to hopefully be better leaders.
Q: How different are you going into your second season?
Ray: I am a year older but I don’t know if I am a year wiser. So we will go from there.
Q: Do you feel that energy and excitement going into practice this year? I’ve heard guys say it can’t get any worse than it was last year with the injuries and such.
Ray: Well, I don’t know if that is true. There is a possibility we could have less wins and more injuries. No one knows that for sure. So you would hope that is not going to be any possible way we can have more obstacles than we had the previous year. But I always say to our guys, it is really hard for you just to say I am a year older so I am a year better.
It’s like, what type of work did you put in, in the offseason in order to be better? I think we have a situation where some guys just assume it just because they are going from freshmen to sophomores that they will be better and be bigger and stronger. It is the work that you put in that will determine if you are going to be a better basketball player and a better team. That remains to be seen. I think our guys have had a really good offseason. I think guys have, individually, had a good offseason. But until you go out there and display it on the court and by producing some wins, then you don’t know.
Q: With the way Colin Borchert finished the year last year, how much does it help your offense be in sync to have that type of stretch four guy?
Ray: I think Colin was, arguably, our best player down the stretch. I believe in the last ten games he averaged about 14.5 points and 7.5 rebounds. With junior college kids it takes them about a semester to figure out where their lot is on the team. I think Colin started to figure that out and took advantage of it.
Now the key is, the way Colin played the last ten games of the season, he needs to play that way the whole season or it doesn’t mean anything. I think Colin has done a good job with his body, too. We didn’t want him to gain weight. We wanted him to stay where he was but just kinda tone up and get stronger and I think he’s done that. We need Colin to be successful for our team to be successful
Q: How has Wendell Lewis’ rehab gone and how has he handled the offseason?
Ray: He had the unfortunate situation where he had to go back and have the second surgery. That set back his rehab but as far as what he was supposed to do with rehab from the doctors’ and athletic trainers’ standpoint, I think he did what he was supposed to do.
Q: I know Fallou Ndoye can’t play this year but what have you seen from him and the other rookie I.J. Ready so far?
Ray: Well, I tell you what, the one thing I covet is guys having a work ethic. And the guys’ work ethic with I.J. and Fallou has been tremendous. Fallou, besides (former Purdue big man) Juwon Johnson, of guys that I have coached in my tenure, he is the fastest guy (big man) I have ever seen and then with the endurance. So Fallou is going to be a good player. Just sitting out is painful for him because he wants to play right away. But at the end of the day, I think Fallou will be a guy he is 210 pounds when he came in to being a guy at 240 pounds and a guy that develops in our program. So when he hits the floor as the first time as a freshman, he will be able to make a huge impact for us.
I think I.J.’s character and his will to win and his leadership are going to be huge advantages for us. Then obviously we needed a point guard. We needed a guy who can handle the basketball against pressure and do a good job on the court. I really believe I.J. is going to be a huge impact on our team right away because he just wants to win and has a will to win.
Q: From a percentage standpoint, how much of your offense and defense were you really able to run last year due to lack of bodies?
Ray: Oh, I think it was a small percentage. It is hard for me to put a number on it. But just getting guys to pick up on concepts of what you want, defensively, it is so hard for guys like Chicken and Fred to be so disciplined at times, defensively. They just got into the standpoint of us wanting to play hard, defensively, meant they had to go steal the ball. I think sometimes just getting guys to honor their assignments is really important.
I can’t put a number on it but I can tell you this. I think we will be much improved as far as just from a knowledge standpoint and what I want and what the coaching staff wants. And I think that is pretty important.
Q: Trivante Bloodman said win or lose, he wants the other team to leave the court saying ‘man, that was a tough team’. How do you establish that this year?
Ray: We’ve talked about this before as far as our plan. We want guys to play harder than the other team, tougher than the other team and smarter than the other team. I think for the most part, every time we set foot on the court I thought we played harder than the other team. I thought from a physicality standpoint, sometimes we just couldn’t play tougher than the other team. Like when we played our last game against Tennessee, I just thought those guys had too many big bodies that we couldn’t handle it. I didn’t think we succumbed to it but I just thought they had bigger, more mature bodies and they played tougher.
Then obviously with our turnover ratio and the fact we took bad shots, we didn’t play smarter than the other team a lot of times. If we can focus in on those things continually, I think we will have a chance.
Q: Talking to Craig and Fred, they noted of having to play multiple roles last year. Even thought not what they expected to be playing, they felt it made them stronger for their careers.
Ray: I think the one thing that they got that a lot of freshmen don’t get is opportunity. I mean, you can’t say they didn’t come into a situation where they didn’t get the opportunity. And now what they do with that opportunity remains to be seen. But they learned from those opportunities and hopefully, that comes to fruition on the court by the way they played.
I think Fred Thomas is going to be a good player because he has a high ceiling. If I had to give out an award for who improved the most this offseason, I would give it to Fred Thomas. I think he did an unbelievable job as far as changing his body and buying into it. He can lift all the weights he wants to life but unless he changes his eating habits, and that is what he did. He ate six times a day. We can’t be on him 24 hours a day just watching his calorie intake. So what he did was he bought into it. I told him you can lift all you want to with Coach (Richard) Akins but until you put some more fuel into your body you’re not going to gain weight.
To his credit he did that. When you see guys taking those steps, it shows that they care. If they care then you have a chance to have a good team.
Q: How much did it help this team to win three of the last five games going into this year?
Ray: Well, I thought it was huge. The one thing you never want lacking from your team is enthusiasm. That is really important. We want to make sure when we go into a practice situation or go into the offseason or we go into a game, I want our guys to play with some enthusiasm for the game of basketball. I think if you don’t have that then you really don’t have a chance to win.
Q: Last year you had to turn guys loose more to play unstructured. But this year, Craig said he welcomes to having only a couple of jobs on the court compared to last year. Do you still see that this year but still having the freedom in your motion offense?
Ray: I think the most important thing that we want our guys to have is individual freedom. We want our guys to have the ability to go out and make plays. A lot of times we focus in too much on what that set play is and what that coach designed. To me, all I want to do is give our guys that individual freedom. It is my job to give them space and opportunity to go make plays.
The whole key to that is, what do you do with that freedom? Alright, you can’t be a selfish player with that freedom. If you can beat your man 1-on-1, we want you to do that every single time. Every single cut that you make, every screen that you come off of, it is to score. Now, once you draw help, what do you do? What type of person are you? Are you the type that kicks it out to the open man at the three-point line? If Gavin is open down low cause the defense helped up, do you dump down to him?
So now, you have that power and that is all we work on in our individual skills development is being able to break your man down 1-on-1 whether it be in the post or in the perimeter. But now that you have this power, how do you yield that power?