October 1, 2013 10:16:55 PM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- No walking.
Rick Ray knows you don't sell a college program to fans, recruits and even current players by slowing down the tempo. This is why his main objective for the first week of practice for the 2013-14 season is to go faster every day. Therefore their will not be any walking: whether it's to and from drills, bringing the ball up the court or certainly in scrimmages under Ray's supervision.
"We know it's going to be more intense with just more players to practice with," Mississippi State sophomore guard Craig Sword said. "We still don't know how anything is going to work because last year was so crazy."
MSU is coming off a 10-22 season where they finished tied for 13th in the Southeastern Conference in a lost year where injuries and off the court issues marred anything that he could possibly implement.
"I don't know about a specific number but it was a low percentage of things that we got accomplished in that first season," Ray said. "I think we have leaders now that feel comfortable taking over and being either vocal or knowing what we're trying to do."
In his second year controlling the Mississippi State men's basketball team and his second year as a Division 1 college basketball coach, Ray is most concerned with establishing a pace of play that better represents what he came to Starkville for in the first place.
"It's kind of like the offenses in college football because the only way you play fast is if you practice fast," Ray said Monday after the first day of workouts. "I told them there are two components to us having shorter practices. One is playing hard. For the most part our guys do that, so that's not a problem. The second component is listening."
According to new NCAA rules, all Division 1 college basketball programs now have 42 days in which to conduct 30 practices before the opening night of play.
Two elements make Ray's initiative for a higher tempo of play easier and the most obvious is the number of student-athletes he has at his disposal on the floor. At points last year MSU was down to six scholarship players and forced to use assistant coaches and managers in drills and scrimmage work. Without a scout team or even second-team to work with, MSU had to conserve energy in preparation and slow the tempo down on both ends of the floor to simply survive.
Ray posted on Instagram his first practice plan Monday morning and the most important element was having 14 players available to use in the 90-minute session.
"I think we're going to be able to pressure more with the depth we have but then you look at, it looks like a lot of options but a lot of those guys are walk-ons," Ray joked. "How many of those bodies can play significant minutes for you is a little misconstrued."
As MSU entered the first day of practice, only two players were unable to fully participate due to medical issues. Senior forward Wendell Lewis was sidelined as he recovers from a second offseason knee injury. Lewis was granted another year of eligibility in June thanks to the SEC approving a medical hardship request after he suffered a knee injury back in December that sidelined him for the remaining 24 games.
Between getting the hardship and the beginning of practice, Lewis had to have another corrective surgery that extended his rehabilitation timeline.
Sophomore point guard Jacoby Davis is still trying to work through a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered before the 2012-13 season after he was recruited by Ray's staff through the St. John's Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield, Wis.
"I just told our guys that I'm not a athletic trainer and that's not my department so whatever they're doing and I look over there, they need to be sweating," Ray said.
The other is possibly having a freshman point guard the MSU staff feels like they can trust in Little Rock, Ark., product I.J. Ready. Ready has already surprised Ray with his ability to pick up mature concepts on both ends of the floor and given a early attitude that a next level of play may not be too advanced for the three-star recruit.
Ready's high school coach Al Flanigan was the father of MSU assistant Wes Flanigan where he led Parkview Magnet High School to back-to-back Arkansas 6A State Championship titles the last two years.
"A lot of people missed IJ because of his size," Flanigan said about his top recruit. "I think he is a guy that can play right away. He is hard nosed and always gives it everything he has. I.J. is just a great person on and off the court."
Ready is already working with some of the projected starters in scrimmage work as MSU returns three talented sophomores in Sword, Gavin Ware and Fred Thomas.
"I.J. Is unique because he's already going at a great pace and that's what we love in him is the fact that he's coming in with a pretty good pedigree already," Ray said.
Ready also held offers from Alabama, Nebraska, Oregon, Texas Tech and Arkansas-Little Rock.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.