STARKVILLE — Rick Ray is determined to never be outsized near the basket ever again.
Another piece of his bigger front court puzzle including the announcement of the signing of junior college forward Johnny Zuppardo.
The 6-foot-9, 235-pound product from Kiln led Jones County Junior College to the National Junior College Athletic Association national championship this past season, averaging 15.2 points and 6.9 rebounds as the Bobcats posted a 28-5 ledger en route to becoming the first school from Mississippi to win the NJCAA title.
The skill that separates Zuppardo from most larger players slotted in the power forward position is his ability to knock down open jump shots in Ray’s motion offense that requires everybody on the floor but the center to have perimeter ability.
In his only season at the JUCO level, Zuppardo shot 62.7 percent from the floor and was 43.1 percent beyond the arc. At the charity stripe, he connected on 80 of his 105 attempts, while collecting 32 steals to go along with his 25 blocked shots.
“His shooting percentages are off the chart,” Ray said. “We needed a shooter in our program, but we got even more. We got a shooter that is a legitimate big who possesses a back-to-the-basket game and is tough.”
Zuppardo chose MSU over Washington, Wichita State and Tulane and the Bulldogs program will be his fourth program in as many years. Zuppardo represents the 13th scholarship player on the roster for MSU and Ray hopes to have all the 13 players active for the start of the season for the first time since he took the job in Starkville.
“He’s a 6-9 player that can handle the ball and step out and shoot the three,” said Jay Ladner, Zuppardo’s high school and junior college coach. “He’s a 6-9 player that can handle the ball and step out and shoot the three. And he’s skilled enough that he can score with his back to the basket. He’s going to be a tough matchup problem for opposing bigs. I’m just tickled to death a Mississippi boy is staying at home.”
After playing sometimes for a second consecutive season with seven or even six scholarship players, Ray was occasionally forced to ask 6-foot-3 walk-on senior Tyson Cunningham to play drastically out of position at power forward.
That Bulldogs depth for the 2014-15 season now features Gavin Ware (6-foot-9) and Roquez Johnson (6-foot-7), along with newcomers Fallou Ndoye (6-foot-11), Travis Daniels (6-foot-8), Oliver Black (6-foot-9), Demetrius Houston (6-foot-7) and now Zuppardo.
“More importantly, he is a proven winner,” Ray said. “With the addition of Johnny, for the first time in my career here, we have an SEC front line that features size, length, strength, and what we sorely needed, depth.”
Zuppardo prepped at St. Stanislaus, for Ladner, also his coach at JCJC. Ladner, who coached Zuppardo to a high school and junior college championship, was named head coach at Southeastern Louisiana last week. In the NJCAA Tournament, Zuppardo averaged 19.4 points in five games and totaled a career-high 32 points against Hill College in the second round.
As a senior in 2011, he led the Rock-a-Chaws to the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 4A state championship and a 34-2 record, while averaging 16.2 points and 7.7 boards. He was selected to the Mississippi North-South and Mississippi-Alabama All-Star games.
“”He really grew up at the short time he was at Jones,” Ladner said. “He became a leader on and off the court and let other guys know what it took to get to Division I. He really blossomed and matured into a great young man. I’ve been fortunate enough to be around him for a long, long time, and I realized in junior high he had a chance to earn a college scholarship.”
Zuppardo originally signed with Arkansas State, where he appeared in 24 games and averaged 1.3 points and 1.0 rebounds. His season-high of 12 points came against Lyon. Following the season, though, he transferred to Southern Mississippi, where he sat out the entire year as coach Donnie Tyndall was changing over the Golden Eagles roster.
“I think Mississippi State is getting a real steal,” Ladner said. “He’s a pleasure to coach, and he gives you everything you want from an athlete.”
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.