STARKVILLE — When you’re coming off a 10-22 season, your team doesn’t have the luxury of being able to look past any opponent.
Mississippi State men’s basketball coach Rick Ray understands that concept as his team prepares for its season opener at 7 tonight against Prairie View A&M at Humphrey Coliseum.
“I don’t have too many goals down the road or questions that need to be answered about this team because we’re focused on Prairie View A&M,” Ray said Wednesday in his team’s media day.
One of the main reasons Ray hasn’t allowed himself, his players, or his staff to think long term is MSU lost to Troy 56-54 on the final shot of the game to kick off the 2012-13 season, Ray’s first as a head coach.
“We told coach Ray if he wanted to schedule Troy again for the opener that we’d be OK with that because that game still bothers us,” MSU sophomore guard Craig Sword said.
MSU hasn’t lost back-to-back season-opening games since 1989. It will start this season against the 2012-13 Southwest Athletic Conference tournament runner-up. The Panthers, who finished 15-19 last season will feature senior forward Jules Montgomery, the SWAC preseason defensive player of the year, reached the league tournament championship game for the first time since 1998.
Coming off a season that also saw MSU lose to Alabama A&M on New Year’s Eve last season at Humphrey Coliseum, Ray knows his team doesn’t have to waste any energy penciling in any victories on this year’s schedule.
“I remind our guys every day I had different thoughts about being a head coach in the SEC when we were 2-0 in the league after the first week,” Ray said. “I didn’t think much of it when we were 2-13 and the wheels were coming apart from our season.”
Ray returns seven players from last season, including Southeastern Conference All-Freshman team selections in Sword and center Gavin Ware. He is eager to discover how much the team has improved after summer and fall conditioning drills.
“It still remains to be seen if our guys have gotten better because it’s hard for me to stand here and tell you (sophomore guard) Fred Thomas is a better shooter or Gavin Ware is a more conditioned athlete until they go out and prove it against other opponents,” Ray said. “There needs to be results against opposing teams.”
One difference is MSU should have better depth at point guard with pass-first freshman IJ Ready and junior Trivante Bloodman.
Ready’s selfless nature has provided motivation to Sword, Thomas, and Ware to run the floor because they know they will get the ball as a reward.
“You always ask yourself when you watch a point guard, would I enjoy playing with that guy?” Thomas said Wednesday. “IJ is a guy I love playing with because he cares more about getting you going offensively than shooting. Once he gets in the lane, he’s so good with the basketball it makes you prepared to receive any kind of pass.”
Ray hopes Ready’s skills can help MSU avoid another season like 2012-13 when it was the nation’s third-worst team in assist-to-turnover ratio.
“We have to be better at taking care of the basketball, and we feel we will be because Chicken (Sword) isn’t forced to be played out of position due to depth issues like we had last season,” Ray said.
MSU will play host Kennesaw State at 7 p.m. Nov. 14.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.