November 2, 2012 10:41:57 AM
STARKVILLE -- Rick Ray is curious to see how his style of play is received in his first season in the Southeastern Conference -- and his first as a Division I head coach.
As an assistant coach at Purdue University and Clemson University, Ray's philosophy was predicated on physical play, including a special emphasis on bumping every cutter through the lane to get those players away from where they wanted to catch the ball.
On Thursday at the Mississippi State University men's basketball team's media day at Humphrey Coliseum, Ray was asked the most significant challenge he faces this season. He didn't hesitate to say teaching his players how to play physically without fouling.
When Ray started to work with his players in the summer, the Bulldogs went through a significant adjustment to understand their coach's philosophy doesn't call for all contact to be a foul.
"We were kind of shocked early on in practice how coach Ray would tell us to keep getting more and more physical in drills and then when we wouldn't do it -- say, 'Coach I don't want to foul there,' " MSU junior guard Jalen Steele said. "Coach Ray is all about physical play all over the court, and he says all the time in practice right now 'that's not a foul.' "
Ray has tried to instill toughness to change the culture for a new roster that will include five new starters.
"It's not just the guys returning, but in high school these guys were the number one option and they needed to be in the game," Ray said, "so they didn't play physical and needed to stay in the game. (We're) making that adjustment, to being an offensive star, and now we want you to play defense and play physical defense has been an adjustment."
The University of Tennessee men's basketball program underwent a similar philosophical change under new coach Cuonzo Martin, who served under Matt Painter at Purdue, just like Ray. The Volunteers went from ninth to fifth in the SEC in scoring defense in Martin's first season thanks to physical play despite accumulating the 11th most fouls in the conference.
The officials will determine how physical MSU will be allowed to play on defense. Before a closed scrimmage Wednesday evening, Ray had his players listen to a lecture about the points of emphasis from three SEC officials who would officiate their 20-minute scrimmage. One of those points is a concept called 'freedom of movement' that suggests the offensive player has a right to get to his spot on the floor just as well as the defender, which means a significant bump of a player with or without the basketball could result in a foul.
According to statsheet.com, only four of the 30 referees who officiated five or more games in the Big Ten Conference last season averaged more than 35 fouls per game. In the Atlantic Coast Conference, there were only two officials who called more than 35 fouls per game. In the SEC, that number jumped to 12. That's a telling statistic considering the SEC has a reputation for being more of a finesse basketball league than other power conferences.
"We want to do is disrupt other people's rhythm, so I think it's a battle of wills." Ray said. "If you're a cornerback and you let a wide receiver do whatever he wants to do, he'll be successful. If you get up and jam him, you'll prevent them more. We'll see how the referees call it."