November 7, 2013 9:56:55 AM
STARKVILLE - When asked Wednesday on the team's media day at Humphrey Coliseum, Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said it bluntly that he needs to see ho much his team has improved.
As MSU opens the 2013-14 season with a home game against Prairie View A&M Friday night, Ray has little idea as to how his team will react in a counted game against opponents with a freshman starting point guard, no frontcourt depth and little confidence in a go-to scorer on a nightly basis.
Ray enters his second year in Starkville with all five starters back from one of the most frustrating seasons of his coaching career that ended the 2012-13 campaign with a 10-22 record. Ray is the first to point out that counting returning starters and returning lettermen from a team that has little experience in winning is a lazy path to determining a team's future success.
"I don't know if that's true," Ray said when asked if his team is relaxed knowing it can't get worse from the 2012-13 season. "It is possible we could have less wins, more injuries and no one knows that for sure."
The laundry list of improvements that had to be made from a 10-22 season that saw as little as six scholarship players due to injuries and player suspensions included player weights, identifying specific skills and even evaluating Ray himself as a head coach.
Ray identified sophomore guard Fred Thomas as the most improved member of the team as he continues to add muscle and improve his shooting figures from a learning experience that was the 2012-13 season. The now 203-pound Thomas shot 32.8 percent from the field and 23.8 percent from three-point range in 28.7 minutes per game. These numbers just don't replicate the form of the 6-foot-5 wing when the basketball leaves his right hand.
"The way I can get those percentages back up is by being patient and that's something in my mind all day, everyday," Thomas said. "I've turned down shots this season because I'm tired and the ball probably wasn't going in. I hope that's developing and maturing as a player."
Gavin Ware, the sophomore center from Starkville High, has dropped 28 pounds since arriving on campus and according to MSU strength and conditioning coach Richard Atkins is at his targeted weight at 262. Part of that weight loss for Ware has been simply identifying what he can and can't eat from a calorie standpoint on a daily basis. These habits exclude late night trips to Waffle House as a freshman before last season began.
"Over a period of time once he started losing weight and getting stronger in the weight room, (Ware) started to see his game improve," MSU strength and conditioning coach Richard Akins said. "If you can ever get them to that point early in their careers, it's a lot easier."
Ray talked about how he learned as a coach how to better handle practices with patience when instructing a young, immature team. Last season Ray would immediately stop practice when a player did a fundamental thing wrong instead of letting the possession finish with a rebound. This led, he believes, to the Bulldogs being just 11th in the league in rebounds per game.
"One thing I've focused on this year as a coach is letting guys play through a possession no matter how many mistakes I saw," Ray said. "What I had to do is train myself to let that possession play out and pull that player aside afterwards because we weren't practicing the end result of a defensive stop, which is the rebound."
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