March 19, 2013 11:10:36 AM
Matthew Stevens - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- The 2012-13 season was a numbers game for the Mississippi State University men's basketball program.
Unfortunately, on most occasions, those numbers weren't very appealing.
The most critical number could be four -- the number of season-ending knee injuries MSU suffered in Rick Ray's first season as a head coach. The injuries were the most Ray had seen in a coaching career that started more than 20 years ago at a high school in Des Moines, Iowa. They also played an integral role in MSU's 10-22 finish (4-14 in the Southeastern Conference), which marked the program's first losing season since 1999-2000, and its fewest victories since a 7-21 season in 1986-87.
""The thing we have to realize, and our team knows it, is there's nobody -- there's nobody -- in the country that has went through what we've went through," Ray said Feb. 24 on the Southeastern Conference media teleconference. "I don't care what level: NAIA, Division II, junior college. With the numbers that we have, I would wonder if anybody in history of college basketball has gone through what we've went through as far as the off-the-court issues and the injuries."
From Christmas to a season-ending 69-53 loss to the University of Tennessee on Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament, MSU never had more than nine active players, and seven on scholarship.
Two of Ray's incoming late signees (Jacoby Davis and Andre Applewhite) suffered season-ending anterior cruciate ligament injuries. Senior forward Wendell Lewis then suffered a season-ending patella fracture and junior guard Jalen Steele suffered two injuries that limited him to 18 games (11 starts).
In middle of the season, which included a school-record 13-game losing streak in the SEC, MSU played with a mixed bag of freshmen and walk-ons who weren't expected to get much playing time. The injuries and dismissal of juniors Shaun Smith and Kristers Zeidaks for repeated team rules violations in September left Ray looking forward to getting a chance to coach a roster of 13 scholarship players for the first time since he accepted the MSU job on April 1, 2012.
"None of these kids knew me (and) they could have said, 'First-year head coach, I'm not going the play hard for him, not going to listen to him,' and nobody did that," Ray said. "I'm really looking forward to coaching these young men in the offseason and see what we can do with 13 scholarship players instead of six."
After beating Auburn University 74-71 in the regular-season finale on March 9 in Starkville, Ray responded to an ESPN.com report that quoted anonymous coaches in the SEC suggesting his team was the worst in the league history.
"You get a chance to read some things and we're the worst team in SEC history. I guess we can't be that if we finished 13 out of 14," Ray said after beating Auburn, which finished last in the regular-season standings at 3-15.
Barring a rejection from the NCAA for a medical redshirt for a fifth season, Lewis will return next season, as will Davis and Applewhite. The freshman guards returned to practice last month in limited capacities. After suffering a second torn ACL, Steele hopes to return to workouts in the summer.
Three-star point guard Imara Ready, three-star center Fallou Ndoye, and junior college transfer Travis Daniels, a forward, are expected to join those four for the 2013-14 season.
"We are really visible with the state of Mississippi because anybody that is a good player in 2013, 2014, and even 2015 (in this state) I've been out to see," Ray said. "They've seen my face. It is so important for us to establish relationships. People are excited when I walk into the gym, and they want to shake my hand and like the fact I came to visit their kid. They say, 'Well, he's just a sophomore, but we appreciate you coming over and visiting us and saying hello.' "
As much as Ray and his coaches have been out establishing relationships, freshmen Gavin Ware, Craig Sword, and Fred Thomas likely will be the building blocks for the program. Ware and Sword were named to the SEC's All-Freshman team, while Thomas had a career-high 21 points in a victory against the University of South Carolina in the first round of the SEC tournament on Wednesday.
Sword led the Bulldogs in scoring (10.5 points per game). His 11.6 ppg. in league play ranked second among all conference freshmen. He also had 55 steals, which was second all-time among MSU freshmen.
"When he was at the (Mississippi-Alabama All-Star game), he was the man," Ware said last week. "You step into a Division I school, everybody comes from a place where they were the man. He has matured and learned to slow down and look at the opportunities on the floor before he tries to score."
Ware, a 6-foot-9, 270-pound forward from Starkville High, averaged 8.4 points and a team-high 6.4 rebounds. His rebounding total was 12th in the SEC, and third among freshmen. Earlier in the season against the University of Central Arkansas, he posted his first-career double-double (22 points, 13 rebounds), which were both career-highs. Ware's rebounding total was fourth among freshmen in school history.
"I've said this before, I think Craig Sword, Gavin Ware, and Fred Thomas are going to be good players," Ray said. "They're just asked to do too much at this point in time in their careers, and it's really unfair."
In his first season as a Division I basketball coach, Ray hopes this season will help usher in a new era of MSU men's basketball.
"I think the one thing I'll remember is just how much these guys gave themselves to me," Ray said. "I really think it speaks to the character of our kids we have on our team that they respected themselves enough, Mississippi State University enough, and our coaching staff enough to continue to fight and compete through all the adversity. That's what I'll remember the most."