By the time Mississippi State tips off Friday at 7 p.m. against Southeastern Louisiana in Tupelo it will have been eight days in between games.
The Bulldogs have been off for exams coming off a 71-61 loss to TCU last Thursday, which snapped a seven-game home winning streak. Coach Rick Ray has been charged with the task of getting his team ready to rebound from the loss with limited practice time.
“This is always a delicate week when you’re talking about finals,” Ray said. “You want to be fair to your players because they are student-athletes and getting them prepared for their finals so they can do well academically. But you also have to get prepared for the opponent too so we’re just trying to find that fine line between letting them get their work done and also being prepared for the game.”
Friday will be MSU’s first game in the BancorpSouth Arena in a decade. The Bulldogs are 3-0 in Tupelo last defeating New Orleans 77-59 on Dec. 16, 2003.
“I’m really excited about playing this game in Tupelo,” Ray said. “Ever since I got the job there’s been an outcry from the community in Tupelo to do something there and we made it come to fruition. I’m looking forward to this opportunity for our guys.”
State is off to a 5-2 start to the season but have gotten off to slow starts in its last three outings. The Bulldogs were able to string together second half rallies in a 58-56 win over Jackson State and a 65-64 overtime decision against Loyola-Chicago.
However, Mississippi State’s sluggish start against TCU was more that it could overcome. The Bulldogs shot just 36-percent from the field in the first half and trailed 34-22 at halftime.
“The thing that we have to nail down is not getting off to slow starts in the first half,” Ray said. “I think it’s a mental thing with us being wrapped up in our offense. Whether we are having success on the offensive end dictates how we play defensively. That’s something we have to get out of the mindset of.”
Another aspect where MSU has struggled is in its perimeter shooting. The Bulldogs made just three of their 18 shots behind the arc against TCU and are shooting just 29.5-percent from 3-point range for the year.
“People are playing zone against us more because of the fact we haven’t shot the ball well,” Ray said.
One player who could spark some scoring from the outside is IJ Ready. The freshman point guard returned against TCU after a five-game hiatus from a hamstring injury and scored nine points in 23 minutes off the bench making all three of State’s 3-pointers.
“He’s where he needs to be at,” Ray said. “We need to make sure we continue to be careful with (his hamstring). The one thing that needs to happen for that to remain is for IJ to continue to be truthful about what is going on with his body. IJ’s such a tough kid that he may say he isn’t hurting so that he can continue to play. The last thing we want to do is prolong the injury or make it worse than what it is.”
With the Bulldogs recent struggles, Ray is considering making some shifts to his starting lineup and substitution patterns throughout the game.
“I think we need to look at what gives us the best position to have success on the court,” Ray said. “I’m looking at making some changes to the starting lineup as well as how we end the game and start the second half. Just because you started the first half doesn’t mean you’ll start the second half. I think all things are open.”
Although there are areas Ray would like to see his team get better, Mississippi State has improved from its 2-5 start through the first seven games a year ago. The Bulldogs have also cut down on its turnovers and have more assists.
“We’re a much better passing team at this point in time,” Ray said. “We’re nowhere near where we need to be but I think we’re second in the SEC in assists per game and have reduced our turnovers. We’ve become a better passing team and not as turnover prone as we were last year.”