February 12, 2013 9:34:48 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State University men's basketball Rick Ray made it clear Monday he wasn't happy with his newest suspended player.
Two days after announcing the indefinite suspension of guard Jalen Steele, Ray called the act of the junior starter "selfish" and a "distraction" to a program that has lost eight straight Southeastern Conference games for the first time since 2006.
While there's a big picture argument to Ray suspending one of two scholarship upperclassmen on the roster, MSU (7-15, 2-8) is down to eight players (six on scholarship) for the first time since November, when the team competed at the Maui Invitational.
"More than anything, we're already in a situation where we have a short rotation, and anything you do outside of the program that's going to be a distraction, first and foremost, that's bad," Ray said. "I think more than anything you're screwing your team and you're screwing your teammates when you get into trouble like that."
Steele, who is averaging 9.5 points per game in 13 games, missed eight games after fracturing his wrist suffered in early November against Florida Atlantic University. He apologized Monday on Twitter after the team's practice.
"I let down a whole lot of people with my actions and the way I handle things and take every blame for it," Steele wrote on his Twitter account, @Jalensteele0. "I just want to say sorry for disappointing people and letting (down) the people who love me."
Without Steele, MSU lost to No. 2 Florida 83-58 on Saturday in Gainesville, Fla. Ray didn't say Monday on the SEC teleconference whether Steele's suspension would be lifted before the team plays the University of Missouri (17-6, 6-4) at 7 p.m. Wednesday (SEC Network) at Humphrey Coliseum.
"The thing that's disappointing for me as far as our disciplinary issues is our freshmen need somebody to look up to. Right now, to be honest with you, we just don't have that," Ray said. "That's been a problem because these guys are coming into the program and they're looking for an experienced guy to show them the way, and we just haven't had that."
Freshman Fred Thomas started for the ninth time this season against Florida. Thomas, who leads the Bulldogs in scoring at 10.5 ppg., had eight points in 29 minutes.
"(Steele's suspension) was pretty disappointing," Thomas said. "We just said we can't hang our heads and we have to still go out there and compete. That's what we did."
Without Steele, MSU was forced to play walk-on Tyson Cunningham, of Columbus, a season-high 26 minutes in league play. Ray said Cunningham provides more value than his 2.4 ppg. and 2.4 rebounds this season.
"The first thing about Tyson is he's our best communicator," Ray said. "The second thing is, you've always got a chance to be better at anything you do if you're smart, and Tyson Cunningham is a smart kid."
Walk-on Baxter Price played a career high 16 minutes at Florida. Prior to the game, he had 23 played minutes this season. Ray was so proud of Price's effort that the MSU first-year coach said he would get an opportunity to guard Missouri preseason All-America guard Phil Pressey.
"You're talking about a kid (in Baxter) who goes in and is playing at No. 2 Florida in a hostile environment that hasn't played very much and just goes out there and does what he's supposed to do," Ray said. "There's a very good chance you could put him out there in that environment and he just throws up. He didn't do that. I was really proud of him and happy for him."
While Steele has been practiced with the team, Ray hasn't said when the suspension will end. After Missouri on Wednesday, MSU will travel Saturday to LSU. It is unknown if Steele will make that trip.
"We're kind of frustrated, but we can't let that get to us," Thomas said. "I wouldn't say we're sad, but we got to stay positive so we can win games. We can compete against each other. We are learning how to lose, how to win."