October 12, 2012 11:29:35 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State University men's basketball coach Rick Ray doesn't understand how or why his team being picked to finish near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference would motivate his team further.
"My goal as a player would be to go out and be the best player I could be and help my team win, whatever that is," Ray said Wednesday.
The first-year coach's message is preseason rankings and prognostications aren't going to be topics of conversation as Ray begins to rebuild the program.
"You pick up a newspaper or preseason magazine and they picked us to be bad, so it's, 'My gosh, I am going to work even harder now?," Ray said when asked how he felt his young team would be affected if it was picked near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference. "Same thing if they picked us to be No. 1, so now you are going to work harder? I don't know what the motivation is beyond that. The motivation is for you to be a really good basketball player so your team can be a really good team."
Ray will try to instill that mind-set in a team that returns zero starters returning from the program Rick Stansbury left in March when he retired after 14 seasons as head coach.
Ray will begin his first season as a Division I men's coach with nine healthy scholarship players, assuming freshman guard Fred Thomas recovers from surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot.
Ray tweeted after the media session that Thomas has been medically cleared to remove of his protective walking boot, but he won't know any other physical setbacks until the Bulldogs take the practice court for the first time Saturday morning.
Gavin Ware, a four-star recruit from Starkville High School, has apparently dropped about 20 pounds since he began fall workouts weighing close to 290 pounds. Ray said Wednesday he has been impressed with the work ethic of the 6-foot-8 center/forward.
"It's real simple, as his weight decreased, he's looked better on the court," Ray said. "In those first workouts, he didn't look very good. ... The biggest thing is Gavin has been a willing listener and done everything we've asked of him. I think Gavin is going to be a contributor to this team and have an impact. He has a chance to be a really good player down the line for us."
The MSU men's and women's basketball teams will open their seasons tonight with the second annual Maroon Madness in downtown Starkville. The event will be held in conjunction with Pumpkinpalooza, the city's fall festival that features trick-or-treating, late-night shopping and dining, and other action-packed events.
"Pairing that with the Pumpkinpalooza is something that is really smart," Ray said. "I think it is going to be a unique situation with our guys being outside in a different venue. What you have is a built-in audience and the guys are looking forward to it. We also have some recruits coming on campus that are looking forward to it. It keeps going back to excitement for the game of basketball, and to me that's the most important thing."
Ray and his coaches then will begin Saturday their efforts to change the culture of the program.
"I want to put together a true team," Ray said. "It seems like a small thing, but I want guys that care about each other on and off the court -- guys that care about sharing, not just the basketball, but experiences as well. I want our guys to form a team and not separation on their own and not guys saying, 'Well, this is coach Flanigan's guy and he recruited him and he plays favoritism' , or 'Coach Ray likes this guy because he recruited him.' We don't want any of that, no selfishness."
Ray stressed that he wants his players to affect that change. He said it will be up to the players on a roster mixed with returnees, junior college transfers, and freshmen to find that chemistry.
"I want every time (fans) come see us play (to ask) these three simple things," Ray said. "Did my team, the Mississippi State Bulldogs, play harder than the other team? The answer has got to be yes. Did my team, the Mississippi State Bulldogs, play tougher than the other team? I want the answer to be yes. Did my team play smart and play smarter than the other team? If we can walk away with the fans saying, 'Yes, yes, yes' to those three things, to me that is being successful."