January 8, 2014 7:14:19 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Rebuilding versus reloading.
That is the philosophical difference between what Rick Ray is doing with the Mississippi State men's basketball program and what Kentucky is doing under coach John Calipari.
Ray is building a foundation with sophomore guards Craig Sword and Fred Thomas and sophomore forward Gavin Ware. The second-year coach believes player development is the key to build MSU (10-3) into a contender in the Southeastern Conference.
At Kentucky, Calipari is able to reload his roster with nationally recognized freshmen every season.
While some in the coaching fraternity roll their eyes at Calipari's use of the one-and-done rule, where players attend Kentucky for one season and then declare for the NBA draft, Ray isn't one of them.
"I think what John is doing is recruiting the best players he can to his program and then letting them make an informed decision about their future," Ray said. "I don't believe that with every player Cal recruits to Kentucky he's thinking, 'I'm only going to have that player for a one-and-done.' "
MSU will get a chance to go against Calipari's latest group of freshmen at 7 tonight (CW) when it plays No. 14 Kentucky (10-3) at Rupp Arena. Of the seven players averaging double-digit minutes for the Wildcats, five -- Julius Randle, Aaron Harrison, James Young, Andrew Harrison, and Dominique Hawkins -- are freshman. Randle, the Harrisons, and Young are the team's top four scorers.
Calipari has said since the implementation of the one-and-done rule that he doesn't like it. However, the Wildcats' third-year coach also has said, "but that's the rule, so that's what we're going to do here."
Ray's philosophy differs because he believes he will have Sword, Thomas, and Ware for several years to help them to become better players and to use them as cornerstones for his rebuilding efforts.
"Our guys got a lot of experience last year they wouldn't have gotten on any other team or if we had a veteran team," Ray said. "They probably didn't deserve most of the minutes they got, but that was the one advantage of having a young and inexperienced team. We had guys that were able to play a lot of minutes as freshmen or as first-year players. That includes our junior-college players, so I just think from a year of maturation and experience they've gotten better."
Calipari blasted his Wildcats during the SEC media teleconference for making similar youthful mistakes Ray saw last season. But he understands he likely will have less time to change the ways of his freshmen.
"You should have seen him the other day," Calipari said. "(Five-star point guard Andrew Harrison) went down and we threw him the ball. It was basket, dunk, assist, basket, four-straight times when he didn't have the ball. It came to him and he just blew by them. We're just like, we're looking around like, 'Wow, maybe he got it.' Then about five minutes later he was standing straight up and down. (I) stopped (practice). 'You're standing.' 'Oh man' because he's done it 18 years that way."
Ray respects Calipari for his ability to transform his second-year players such as 7-foot-1 center Willie Cauley-Stein. Ray said Monday that Cauley-Stein had "made the most strides as a basketball player" since last season. That could spell trouble for the Bulldogs because they don't have anybody to match the physical capabilities and talents of Cauley-Stein, who is averaging 8.8 points and 8.2 rebounds.
"It looks like he's had a year of strength and development," Ray said. "He's really moving well defensively. He's able to switch ball screens, he affects shots at the rim, he's done a lot of good things. I just think his on-the-ball activity and his ability to block shots off the ball has been really good."
When Calipari won his first national title two years ago, the Wildcats had productive veterans (sophomore forward Terrance Jones and senior Darius Miller) to go with five-star freshmen (Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Marquis Teague) due in part to the fear about the NBA lockout prior to that season. Calipari's favorite saying about that team is Teague, Kidd-Gilchrist, and Davis took the third, fourth, and fifth most shots on the team.
Two years later, Calipari is trying to replicate that chemistry by preaching that the Wildcats need to be understand the difference between having the ball and playing without it in the dribble-drive offense.
"I've told them all think pass when you have the ball," Calipari said. "Think score when you don't. It's not a mental trick. It's just to get them to think different. I tell them all the time, I'm telling them to run blind. Run blind is like a football player who's a wide receiver that is not receiving the ball but runs his pattern like he is receiving. That's running blind."
Ray doesn't see his job at MSU as different than Calipari's at Kentucky. Like Calipari, Ray is trying to get the Bulldogs to accept roles.
"I think it's always hard when any young man steps on the scene in college basketball,no matter where you end up going to play," Ray said. "He wants to be that star he was in high school and sometimes that just doesn't translate. I think our guys have done a really good job of accepting who they are and what their roles are and not fighting that, and it's really helped for the betterment of our team."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.