As a new year has begun, many people await the many speeches from public officials and particularly President Barack Obama about the state of the union and even the state of their very own state such as in Mississippi. Governor Phil Bryant gave his “State of the State” address yesterday; giving me reason to think what the state of Mississippi State basketball is? From a distance, one could say that this 2012-2013 season could possibly be the worst year of basketball Mississippi State (MSU, State) could possibly have. Yet let’s not judge a book by its cover, let’s actually crack this one open and discuss it, starting from the prologue and the situation State was put up against at the finish of the 2011-2012 season.
It was a 2011-2012 season which started off better than many people expected in the Bulldog nation. A victory in the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden with wins over ranked Texas A&M and Arizona set the State faithful abuzz about how good this team could be in the coming games. And they were almost better than advertised as State amassed a 15-4 record up to February 9 following the tournament championship in New York City. Even looking like a team that could possibly make a run in the NCAA tournament, MSU hoped to pick up an easy win against a not too hot Georgia at the Hump on a Saturday February 11, 2012. It was not to be as State lost in overtime to Georgia, resulting in a late season tailspin which the Bulldogs could never truly recover from. Soon the true attitudes of many of the players began to blossom and especially the man-child known as Renardo Sydney. Sydney’s terrible work ethic and down-right awful attitude took over the team like a virus and led to the early exit defeat to Georgia in the SEC tournament which embarrassed MSU. Then a first-round defeat by the University of Massachusetts in the NIT made many fans unsatisfied if not angered beyond measurement. Mississippi State finished the season 21-12 overall, but the season could not be appreciated as a 2-7 finish left a huge blemish on everything.
After such a dismal finish, many fans sought the firing of head coach Rick Stansbury, claiming he had lost control of his athletes, that he had been at State too long, and he had become too relaxed at the head coaching position. Like a witch hunt with a brutal finish, Stansbury was “kindly” asked to step down as acting head coach and pushed to take a “small-time position” with the Mississippi State Athletic Department. Closing out his 14 year tenure at the helm of Mississippi State basketball, Stansbury collected a 293-164 (0.641) record and five trips to a second round game in the NCAA tournament but never further.
Now with an empty position, Athletic Director Scott Stricklin had quite a task ahead of him, one that could be considered meticulous and very challenging. How could an A.D. continue to please fans while also selecting a coach who could possibly produce wins the next seasons? After a good while on the coaching carousel, Rick Ray , an Associate Head Coach from Clemson, was selected in. Not garnering much excitement, Ray took a podium on the floor of the Humphrey Coliseum and looked like a possible savior that might lead State away from the dark road it was traveling. Ray spoke about working hard, relentless effort, and the type of offense and defense he would bring to Mississippi State. And even though Ray touched on the many things State fans had begged from Stansbury to do, many walked away unsatisfied about the experience level and young age of the this coach. How in the world would this coach turn things around… how?
Well it never got easier for Head Coach Ray, the news of potential star Rodney Hood transferring to Duke hit the basketball program and the Bulldog faithful like a ton of bricks. This transfer began the great scramble to see who was left on the roster at State and it did not look positive. The graduation of Arnett Moultrie, the do-it all center, and Dee Bost, the superman of MSU basketball, and the transfer of Hood left the Bulldogs with very little experience. There was some hope left as five freshman were to come in which held some promise and six letterman remained on the team. Yet the adversity did not end with roster spots, Ray brought a new mantra of hard work and discipline to the Mississippi State basketball program which did not sit well with a handful of players. These players were chased off and two in particular tried to stay on till the very end. Ray cited repeated team rule violations as reasons for Shaun Smith, a guard, and Kristers Zeidaks, a player that gave depth to the front court, to receive their packing orders to head home by late August.
Though many thought the skies had cleared, the weather got even rougher for the hardwood Bulldogs. A small roster could not afford the loss of players to injury, but it happened quicker than anybody expected. By the end of preseason freshman Andre Applewhite, knee, and Jacoby Davis, knee, were sidelined for the rest of the season. Also freshman guard and Jackson native Fred Thomas missed a large portion of preseason workouts due to a stress fracture in his foot. For many Mississippi State fans, the thought of cancelling the season began to look like a definite possibility.
The Bulldogs scared their fans early in an exhibition game taking on lowly NAIA William Carey located right outside of Hattiesburg. It was a closer game than many expected and a contest State nearly lost. Luckily, the Bulldogs were able to pull a narrow victory over William Cary 80-74. Following that game, State opened the regular season with a road trip to Troy, Alabama taking on the Troy University Trojans. Once again, State hoop fans thought they were living a nightmare as the Bulldogs fell to the Trojans 56-53 in a tight ballgame. Maybe some fans had set their expectations too high, expecting Rick Ray to be the Babe McCarthy of the modern era. It never got better early in the season as a trip to the Maui Invitational resulted in much higher-caliber teams such as North Carolina, Marquette, and Texas, running all over a seven-man roster of Mississippi State. And even though State picked up a handful of wins during the non-conference portion of the schedule these were teams that everyone expected Ray and his Bulldogs to defeat. At the end of two long, painful months, Mississippi State held a 5-7 overall record and possibly some self-esteem issues.
State never let any doubt creep into the locker room though as MSU opened their conference play to a very challenging South Carolina under an outstanding first-year head coach Rick Martin formerly of Kansas State University. The Dogs trailed by 48-42 with six minutes remaining but used heart and determination to overcome the deficit and pick up their first Southeastern Conference (SEC) win 56-54. Defying all odds, State continued their winning ways in Athens, Georgia defeating the Georgia Bulldogs 72-61. State could not keep the streak alive though last Wednesday and Saturday as Alabama demolished MSU and Tennessee pulled away, giving the Bulldogs two SEC losses.
Looking through the body of work that head coach Ray has submitted for review, I would give him and his staff a “C+/B-.” Ray has brought a new mantra to the team, teaching hard work, heart, and discipline. After cleaning up the teams disciplinary actions, Ray has been able to create a core group of players which will do anything for him. The schedule has been a very arduous one for a team with a tough hand of cards, but Ray has stuck with it and all the State faithful will hope he continues to improve. I am still hesitant to crown Coach Ray after some blowout losses and an embarrassing loss to Alabama A&M at the Hump leaves me to grade him between a “C+/B-“.
So my suggestions for many State fans is enjoy watching the Bulldogs play basketball, they may not be the Miami Heat, but enjoy watching them try their best for Mississippi State University. Stop expecting a national title run and expect the Bulldogs to shock the world rather than win them all. You will appreciate the less stressful environment you have put yourself and be more willing to appreciate their efforts.