STARKVILLE — Mississippi State guard Fred Thomas wants to be a leader on the basketball court.
Part of that desire comes from the fact that it will help the Bulldogs, 24-41 in the past two seasons, win games more games.
The other part? Thomas wants to provide MSU’s newcomers with something he didn’t have when he entered the program three years ago.
“We didn’t really have anybody to look up to when we got here,” said Thomas, a junior who averaged 9.3 points per game as a sophomore. “With all these new guys coming in, I just want to be a leader and help them out as they adjust to this level.”
When Thomas arrived in Starkville two years ago with coach Rick Ray, the Bulldogs struggled to build an identity. Ray, who inherited the program from former coach Rick Stansbury, had a roster devoid of upperclassmen and watched his team struggle in his first two seasons due to a lack of leadership.
But entering his third year at MSU, Ray finally has a full roster — all five starters are back with seven newcomers — and he has plenty of experienced upperclassmen to lean on for leadership.
Senior Trivante Bloodman wants to help Thomas and the younger Bulldogs.
“The leadership on this team has definitely changed,” said Bloodman, a senior point guard from New York City. “We never had anybody show us the ropes, but now it’s up to us to show the young guys. When we came in as young players, we just had to lean on each other to get through it. Now the younger guys can lean on us.”
It’s a luxury Ray has waited on for three years, and with tipoff to his third season less than a month away, he has it. MSU’s veteran leadership, and the cache of young talent, will be on display tonight in downtown Starkville, when the MSU men’s and women’s basketball teams take part in Maroon Madness. Beginning at 7 p.m. on Main Street, the teams will be introduced for the first time in the fourth-annual Maroon Madness. The event kicks off in conjunction with Pumpinkpalooza on Main Street, starting at 6 p.m.
The teams will interact with fans with events such as a dunk contest, an autograph session, and more.
On Thursday, Bloodman and Thomas met with local media to discuss the 2014-15 season, which will begin Nov. 14 with a home game against Western Carolina. MSU will play Delta State in an exhibition game at Humphrey Coliseum.
For Bloodman, the chance to play with a full roster and plenty of scholarship players will make a big difference.
“It’s just exciting to have a full team, period,” Bloodman said. “Now we can practice the right way, we can scrimmage, we can do everything we couldn’t do before.”
Starters Thomas, guard Craig Sword, and center Gavin Ware return from a team that finished 14-19 (3-15 in the Southeastern Conference) last season. Sword led the team in scoring (13.7 points per game), while Ware averaged 10 points per game.
But the talented crop of newcomers has Ray’s team thinking big this season, and it was that group Thomas mentioned often Thursday, particularly freshman Demetrius Houston.
“That guy, his athleticism is unbelievable,” Thomas said of Houston, a freshman from Montgomery, Alabama, who was listed as a top-100 recruit nationally by ESPN.com. “He can jump out of the gym, and he’s going to be a good defensive player. He’s a good kid, too.”
Also new on the court this season for the Bulldogs will be 6-foot-11 freshman Fallou Ndoye and 6-8 junior Travis Daniels. Both players sat out last season. Ndoye, a talented but raw center, redshirted a season ago, and Thomas has noticed his battles with Ware down low.
“Those two really compete,” Thomas said. “Last season, Gavin was really the only big guy we had down there. Now Fallou is going toe-to-toe with him. It’s a battle every day.”
For Bloodman, the addition of Ndoye, Daniels, and 6-9 junior Johnny Zuppardo gives MSU a different look.
“The height is a big difference,” Bloodman said. “It seemed like last year we only had one true big man. Now it feels like we have about seven. The amount of bodies we have and the height we have is going to make a big difference.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat