STARKVILLE — Craig Sword believes he and Fred Thomas are the most important pieces entering this season.
The senior guards have been through all the highs and lows with the Mississippi State men’s basketball program in the past three seasons. Sword has led the Bulldogs in scoring the last three years, while Thomas has been one of the team’s top defensive players.
MSU first-year head coach Ben Howland brought in a talented freshman class with Malik Newman and Quinndary Weatherspoon at the guard positions, but Sword and Thomas will play vital roles this season.
“We’re the seniors, and we’ve got to bring the freshmen in and show them the way,” Sword said.
MSU will begin practice Oct. 5 and open the season against Eastern Washington at 8 p.m. Nov. 13 (SEC Network) at Humphrey Coliseum.
When Sword and Thomas arrived at MSU in the summer 2012, there was only one senior on the roster: walk-on Baxter Price. As a result, Sword and Thomas were thrust into starting roles and had to mature quickly. In that first season, Sword averaged a team-high 10.5 points per game, while Thomas was third on the team (9.7 ppg.). Sword was named to the Southeastern Conference’s All-Freshman Team.
This season, Sword and Thomas expect to be leaders again.
“We’ve been here and we have great experience, so we have to show those guys the way,” Thomas said.
Sword averaged 13.7 ppg. as a sophomore and 11.3 ppg. last season. His average climbed to 14.4 in SEC games. Thomas has finished fourth on the team in scoring in the past two seasons (9.3 ppg. as a sophomore and 9.1 ppg. as a junior).
With Newman’s presence, some of the weight will be taken off Sword and Thomas’ shoulders on the offensive end.
“Just because of Malik’s name, other teams are just going to scout him more than they’re going to scout me,” Sword said. “That should open my game up and more of my teammates’ games up, too.”
Thomas came to MSU from Jim Hill High School with the reputation of being a shooter, but he has shot 30 percent (134 of 453) from 3-point range in his career. He shooting percentage has improved from 24 percent as a freshman to 32 percent as a sophomore to and 34 percent last season.
Howland immediately saw a glitch in Thomas’ shot when he first saw him play: He watched the ball instead of the rim when it left his hands.
“We have to fight with him to break that habit even though he has probably had it since he first learned to shoot a jump shot,” Howland said.
But Thomas has been working hard to fix his shot and is in the gym every chance he gets.
“My shot’s like totally fixed now,” Thomas said. “I think it’s going to help me tremendously.”
Sword and Thomas aren’t the team’s only veteran guards. Junior I.J. Ready has been one of the team’s best shooters the last two seasons. As a freshman, he played in 26 games (21 starts) and averaged 5.9 points and 2.1 rebounds. As a sophomore, Ready appeared in 29 games (21 starts) and averaged 8.2 ppg.
Sword said Ready improved this summer and he notices a difference in the point guard after the team’s first weight lifting sessions.
“I.J. has become more of a leader,” Sword said. “I’m a senior and he leads me. We need more of that. If we get more of that from him, we should be successful.”
Thomas isn’t surprised Ready has taken over a leadership role because of the position he plays.
“Being a point guard, you have to be a leader,” Thomas said.
Howland’s arrival has raised the expectations for the program. Howland led UCLA to three-straight Final Fours from 2006-08. He also had success building Pittsburgh into a national power. His goal in replacing Rick Ray, who went 37-60 in three seasons, including 15-44 in the SEC, is to make the Bulldogs relevant again. Sword and Thomas hope they will be able to play a big part.
Thomas also hopes MSU will develop so it will have an opportunity to play well into March. Sword doesn’t care about any personal goals, he just wants the team to thrive.
“I’m just trying to get a SEC championship, for one, and then, hopefully, everybody on the team has success,” Sword said.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Ben Wait on Twitter @bcwait
Ben Wait reports on Mississippi State University sports for The Dispatch.