December 6, 2013 4:49:52 AM
STARKVILLE - When he took over the Mississippi State men's basketball program last year, Rick Ray wanted fans to leave Humphrey Coliseum with answers to whether his team played harder, tougher and smarter than their opponent.
In the 71-61 loss to TCU Thursday night in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, the answer to all three questions was a resounding no. A undermanned, undersized and struggling TCU squad dominated the first 25 minutes of action building a 18-point deficit that MSU (5-2) couldn't dig out of in front of an announced paid attendance of 6,795 that found the exits quickly with less than two minutes left.
"What we have here is everybody is wrapped up in our offense, coaching staff, players, fans,"Ray said in post-game media conference. "Our problem is we refused to be sound on the defensive end. When you are solid and compact on every possession, you put yourself in the right defensive position and you don't foul."
Without its most productive player and low post scoring threat in Amric Fields, TCU (5-3) led nearly from start to finish by getting 31 points from its depleted bench thanks to a career high 20 points from guard Charles Hill Jr. Before Thursday night, the previous career high for the 6-foot-2 sophomore was 13 points last season against Oklahoma
"It wasn't so much that I was feeling it tonight but I just made a couple open shots right away and then my teammates found me for some much buckets," said Hill Jr. "We wanted to establish a tempo and flow early in this game after getting beat early in our last blowout loss to Harvard."
In a repeated storyline for MSU's 2013-14 season, the Bulldogs played with little energy and defensive intensity in a first half that saw TCU get eight layups and a dozen field goals in the paint thanks to MSU's inability to stay in front of slashing guards.
Under Ray, MSU is now 1-21 when they find themselves down at halftime, a trend the MSU coach would like to reverse but also not find his program in especially on their home floor.
"It's a constant story for us that we don't out and play hard in the beginning and if I knew the answer, the problem would be fixed but that's something our players have to recognize and take a personal pride in and that's just not happening," Ray said.
In a big picture perspective, TCU coach Trent Johnson may have given the rest of the country the blueprint on how to soundly defeat this MSU squad by playing 40 minutes of disciplined 2-3 zone defense.
Sword scored a game-high 24 points in the game immediately following being named Southeastern Conference co-player of the week but the sophomore from Montgomery, Ala., had little help from his teammates on either end of the floor.
"We played hard but we should have played that way from the beginning of the game," Sword said. "We didn't have enough energy. We just have to play hard from the jump. We didn't approach the game the right way."
With a depleted roster that is missing three solid contributors to the lineup, Johnson said Thursday he's playing zone out of necessity but the maneuver forced MSU to shoot 3 of 18 from beyond the three-point arc and never get into any offensive rhythm throughout the evening.
"I'm not comfortable with (playing a zone defense)," Johnson said. "If I had my choice, I like to play man but I also like to win too. This gives us the best chance to go do that on the road in a hostile environment."
With TCU missing Fields and any other substantial post player, MSU's combination of starting forward Gavin Ware and Colin Borchert combined for more personal fouls (8) than made field goals (5).
"Colin and Gavin should play good basketball no matter who the opponent is quite frankly," Ray said. "Gavin is clearly being doubled and tripled when he touches the basketball inside near the block and then Colin Borchert is somebody that is flat out just not being productive for us lately period."
Down the final stretch where MSU cut the lead to just three points, TCU did exactly what any team has to do in order to pull out a road victory: make free throws and create defensive turnovers. The Horned Frogs converted 25 of 31 from the charity stripe and forced 15 turnovers without significantly pressuring the basketball.
In his first game back from the severely strained hamstring last month, MSU freshman point guard IJ Ready played 23 minutes without an assist but the only three shots from three-range for the Bulldogs. Every starter in the MSU lineup besides Sword was a combined 6 of 21 from the field with six turnovers Thursday night.
In a repeat of last year's immaturity, MSU sophomore guard Fred Thomas allowed his offensive ineffectiveness to translate into defensive laziness as Ray was unable to have him on the floor late in the game because of his mental breakdowns. Thomas finished with just one point and was without a field goal for only the fifth time in his college career.
"We need to get (Craig Sword) more help on the offensive end," Ready said. "If we are going to shoot 18 3-pointers in the game, but we have to make more of them. We have to get to the gym and make shots."
Ray even reminded fans Thursday night to not be impressed the MSU comeback effort in the second half because that was the product of sere desperation on both ends of the floor but not a true reflection of how his team played for 40 minutes.
"It's nice that we came back and all but we did that out of urgency," Ray said. "We played the way we needed to at the end of the game because we were desperate. We need to play that way throughout the game."
MSU will take a final exams break before returning to action against Southeastern Louisiana. The Bulldogs and Lions meet at 7 p.m. Dec. 13 at BancorpSouth Arena in Tupelo.
All of the Dispatch MSU Sports Blog readers: feel free to follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/matthewcstevens for up-to-date Mississippi State coverage.