February 28, 2014 12:26:20 PM
STARKVILLE -- With his team mired in a 10-game losing streak, Mississippi State men's basketball coach Rick Ray hasn't lost sight of what his team needs to do to reverse its fortunes.
"We got to have mature guys on this team that know how to play basketball and know how to compete," said Ray, who is in his second season as head coach at MSU. "We just don't have that at this point and time. Our best basketball players who we're asking to be leaders were freshman and are sophomores this year, and they don't have anybody supporting them."
Craig Sword, Gavin Ware, and Fred Thomas have been asked to carry the Bulldogs since Ray became MSU's coach on April 1, 2012. To date, second-year players account for 45.7 percent of the team's scoring. Ray and sophomores Sword, Ware, and Thomas will try to help MSU (13-15, 3-12 Southeastern Conference) end the losing skid when they play at 1 p.m. Saturday at Missouri (19-9, 7-8).
On Wednesday, MSU lost to Tennessee 75-68, its 16th-straight defeat in the month of February under Ray. Thomas, who had a season-high 18 points and tied a season high with six rebounds against Tennessee, said the losing streak is becoming a burden.
"This sort of reminds me of last year (MSU went on a 13-game SEC losing streak in 2012-13) and that was pretty tough," Thomas said.
Thomas had his season-high efforts in a 32-minute performance that epitomized what Ray has been looking for from Thomas for nearly two years.
"The key is asking if this is just a one time affair with Fred Thomas or is it a situation he goes forth from this and does some things he accomplished tonight," Ray said. "He can guard the other team's best player and be effective that way or he can rebound the basketball. Fred Thomas is much more than a 3-pointer shooter if he understands and embraces it."
The 10-game SEC losing streak is the sixth-longest in school history. It also is the first time in program history MSU has had back-to-back seasons with double-digit losing streaks.
Ray hopes the Bulldogs who are unable to participate this season mix with the incoming recruits and the returning players from this season to help give him the depth he feels will enable the program to be more competitive.
"This is the second-straight year we've had seven, eight, or nine scholarship players on the roster, and next year is the first year we'll have 12 or 13," Ray said Feb. 17. "It becomes difficult to hold guys accountable when you don't have a substitution pattern or more than anything, competition for those minutes."
Missouri hopes its veterans will help it make a late push for a NCAA tournament bid. Junior guard Jabari Brown has been on a scoring spree in his last 12 games, averaging 22.7 points and shooting 52 percent from the field, 86 percent from the free throw line, and 49 percent shooting from three-point range. He has 10 20-point games in that 12-game conference stretch, the most by a Tiger since 1990-91.
"I don't think Jabari gets credit for how good a player he is because how he's so reserved in how he plays," Missouri coach Frank Haith said.
Thomas likely will get a chance to end that streak and defend Brown.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.