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BUILDING A RAY OF HOPE: New MSU coach has vision for the program

 

Matthew Stevens

 

STARKVILLE -- In order to start the rebuilding job staring at Mississippi State University, first-year men's basketball coach Rick Ray had to make an unusual request to his new fan base. 

 

It's a request that is unique in the win fast or else culture of intercollegiate athleticism but at the same time was necessarily apparent given the of where the program sits among most power conference schools. 

 

The success or failure of this request will also likely define how his tenure in Starkville will be defined many years to come when he's either feeling the effects of his completed project or MSU is finding another individual to perform essentially the exact same task again. 

 

"Throw away your doubts, throw away your fears, and just go two feet into Mississippi State basketball, and see what happens," Ray said. 

 

Yes, the MSU fan base is not only being asked to trust a man they didn't know existed prior to April 1, 2012 but they're also being asked to have patience with that same man throughout the process. 

 

Tomorrow night the task begins for Ray and the MSU fan base as the Bulldogs (0-1) play in its home opener for the 2012-13 season opener hosting Florida Atlantic University for 7 p.m. tipoff. 

 

The Compton, Calif., native is being asked to rebuild a program that has won 20 games nine of the last 11 seasons with only 23 percent of its returning minutes and 17 percent of its scoring from last year's roster. Combine that with the philosophical and cultural change of the day-to-day operation of the program and it's clear MSU went beyond giving itself not only a completely new face to a program but also a new path to what they and Ray himself hopes is success. 

 

Months before the season begins in earnest, Ray has begun to answer questions that have already defined his tenure at MSU and understands many more will greet him in the future. 

 

 

 

Why Ray was chosen to lead this new program? 

 

On April Fool's Day, Ray, a 40-year-old career assistant coach, was announced as the program's 19th men's basketball head coach, and its first new face in a decade and a half. 

 

Some MSU fans thought it was a prank, and people asked how could the school hire somebody most nobody knew to replace Stansbury, MSU's all-time wins leader, who retired after 14 years as the program's head coach and 22 seasons as a member of the men's basketball coaching staff. 

 

Ray wasn't familiar with the Southeast and hadn't spent much time in the state of Mississippi. He quickly realized the first problem he faced, and decided to meet the recruiting, marketing, and identity challenges head on. 

 

"I'm not a big name, and I'm somebody where I'm sure a lot of people said 'who in the world is Rick Ray?'" Ray said. "I feel like you can't sell Mississippi State if you can't sell Rick Ray. Therefore, people need to know very quickly who I am and what I'm about." 

 

The recruiting, marketing, and identity challenges didn't matter to Stricklin. He wanted the smartest and most innovative coach he could find. 

 

"One of the reasons Rick Ray was a fit for Mississippi State was how smart he is and how everybody told me that is why he's ready for a job like this," Stricklin said. "He understands what challenges are in front of him, and we've discussed his plan to overcome those challenges. His plan was a major selling point when I spoke of those qualities at the beginning of the process." 

 

According to sources inside the program, MSU's internal search committee spoke with several other coaches, including Colorado State University coach turned University of Nebraska coach Tim Miles, Wichita State University coach Gregg Marshall, Duke University assistant coach Jeff Capel, Murray State University coach Steve Prohm, Valparaiso University coach Bryce Drew, and University of Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne. 

 

In his first opportunity to make a hire in a primary revenue-producing sport at MSU, Stricklin wrote a public statement asking fans for patience during the search process. He wanted a man with personality characteristics more than an individual who could draw Xs and Os on a cocktail napkin. 

 

"He is bright, enthusiastic, disciplined, and is a man of integrity," Stricklin said. "He has served with some of the top head and assistant coaches in college basketball, and will bring a piece of all of them to our head coaching position." 

 

Defensive intensity is one of the new pieces Ray has brought to MSU. Ray brings a physical mentality to the game of the basketball that is unique to the Southeastern Conference. The first-year head coach is trying to install a motion offense that is fundamentally different than Stansbury's screen and roll offense that is more often seen in professional basketball. 

 

All of these questions haven't begun to be answered. Some of them are still be scrutinized. All of the results will be evaluated. 

 

"I know Rick Ray doesn't excite State fans, but guess who else knows that, Scott Stricklin," CBS Sports national college basketball analysts Gary Parrish said. "And yet he made the hire. He really put himself out there to make this hire, and I can appreciate that because too often athletic directors take the predictable and easy way out. Scott didn't do that, though. This is his hire." 

 

 

 

Men's basketball culture change at MSU 

 

Ray has said he doesn't care about what happened in the past 15 years at MSU. He isn't concerned about how Stansbury did things. When asked if he had spoken to Stansbury since he was hired, Ray has said no. Stansbury led MSU to a 38-26 record the past two seasons and failed to advance to the NCAA tournament. Off the court, MSU had consistent problems with players, including junior center Renardo Sidney. 

 

Stansbury's decision to retire came following a meeting with Stricklin where the two agreed expectations hadn't been met in many aspects. The decision also came two days after MSU lost to the University of Massachusetts in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament. The loss ended a season in which the Bulldogs finished 21-12 and lost seven of their last nine games. At one time, MSU was projected to be a lock to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years, but the slide at the end of the season dropped MSU to a No. 4 seed in the NIT. The loss to UMass epitomized the ups and downs of the season, as the Bulldogs trailed by double digits in the first half and rallied before losing 101-96 in double overtime before an announced crowd of 2,507 at Humphrey Coliseum. The attendance was the smallest crowd of the season. 

 

But Ray isn't concerned about the past. Since his introductory media conference at Humphrey Coliseum, he has said he isn't worrying about things that happened under somebody else's watch. 

 

"I don't know if it's about a cultural change because I don't know what the culture was like beforehand," Ray said when asked specifically if he was dealing with a culture change at MSU. "So yes, it is a culture change, but does that mean the coaching was bad here before? I don't know. I wasn't here." 

 

Following the loss to UMass, the Bulldogs figured they would have to rebuild. Starting guards Dee Bost and Brian Bryant graduated, Sidney announced he would leave the program with one year of eligibility remaining, and transfer Arnett Moultrie announced he also would leave MSU early. Moultrie, who led the Bulldogs in scoring and rebounding, was selected in the first round of the 2012 NBA draft. 

 

Not only did MSU lose experienced players, it also lost incoming players. Days after Ray was hired, four-star prospect Josh Gray, of Houston, was released from his scholarship. Gray, a guard, signed with Texas Tech University. 

 

The biggest blow may have come when sophomore Rodney Hood, who many thought would become MSU's next leader, announced he would transfer. 

 

At his introductory press conference, Ray encouraged Hood, who is from Meridian, to stay and help him build the program. Seven days later, Hood announced he was leaving. On June 30, he confirmed he was transferring to Duke University. 

 

The graduation losses and defections left Ray with a roster that featured only junior guard Jalen Steele and senior forward Wendell Lewis as significant contributors in 2011-12. 

 

In early September, Ray announced the dismissal of Shaun Smith and Kristers Zeidaks for repeated violations of team rules. The move, which limited MSU to 11 scholarship players, sent a message that antics that may have been tolerated under any previous administration weren't acceptable. 

 

"Making sure we hold our guys accountable for all their actions both on and off the court has probably been the most difficult thing to do," Ray said. "Not because the kids have fought it, but it's something new to them. Guys want a pat on the back for doing things they are supposed to do" 

 

Ray was hired to change the perception of the program. Stricklin said Ray accomplished that goal before he played a game. 

 

"I support and respect Rick's willingness to make a difficult decisions," Stricklin said in a statement following the dismissal of Zeidaks and Smith. 

 

 

 

Challenges ahead 

 

Coaches typically say at the beginning of the season that they need time to evaluate how their players adjust to changes. 

 

The Vanderbilt University program is a perfect example in the SEC this season. Commodores coach Kevin Stallings lost his top six contributors from 2011-12, including three who were selected in the first 31 picks of the NBA draft. As a result, Stallings' leading returner scorer averaged just 3.1 points last season. In his 13th season in Nashville, 

 

Stallings must replace 88 percent of the scoring from a program that won the SEC tournament championship last season. 

 

At SEC Media Day, Stallings acknowledged his task is 100 percent different than what Ray faces at MSU because a foundation is in place at Vanderbilt. 

 

"At least when I said (in practice this summer), 'Let's do three-line close out' I had at least six guys that knew where to go," Stallings said. "When you take over a new program, two-line layups can be a chore. It's much more difficult to take over a new program than have an entirely new team." 

 

At the University of Arkansas, Mike Anderson was part of Nolan Richardson's coaching staff that helped the Razorbacks win a national championship. At the University of South Carolina, Frank Martin has instant credibility because of the success he had at Kansas State University in leading that program to the NCAA tournament. 

 

"This is a business where every other multi-million dollar company in the world depends on growing people," Martin said. "College athletics is the only one that depends on 18- and 19-year-old kids. Sometimes it appears the job isn't getting done, but, in reality, it's not far off because you're dealing with children." 

 

Ray doesn't have an established program or a résumé of postseason success as a head coach to fall back on. Instead, he has to figure out how to get a new group of players that is learning his style and philosophy to mature and develop while evaluating what MSU has and what it needs to be more competitive in years to come. 

 

Ray understands recruiting will play a crucial role in his performance in his first job as a Division I men's basketball head coach. In the short term, Ray and assistant coaches Wes Flanigan, Chris Hollender, and George Brooks, pieced together a recruiting class to fill out the roster. Flanigan has played an integral role in Ray learn about recruiting in the region. 

 

"The recruiting ties he has in the South is really going to be good for us," Ray said. "When I first got the job, you have to sell three things. You have to sell Mississippi State, you have to sell me, and you have to sell the assistant coaches recruiting. A lot of guys already know the assistant coaches, in the case of Wes. Now all he has to worry about is selling the other two things." 

 

Ray's recruiting plan in the state of Mississippi will focus on the fact MSU has what he feels are the best basketball facilities in the state. He points to the construction of the Mize Pavilion, a state-of-art practice facility, that was built less than two years ago to illustrate the university's commitment to basketball. 

 

"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 personally," 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." 

 

The reviews have been mixed. With early signing day in college basketball set for this week, MSU is projected to sign I.J. Ready, a three-star point guard from Little Rock, Ark., Quantel Denson, a three-star junior college transfer from Park Hills, Mo., and Travis Daniels, a little-known junior college forward from Tuscaloosa, Ala. 

 

MSU lost out on one of the state's top prospects in the Class of 2013 -- 6-foot-9 center Dwight Coleby -- to the University of Mississippi. 

 

Ray has said this offseason the job at MSU was attractive to him because of their commitment to men's basketball. What he now realizes is he has to ask that same fan base and alumni that care deeply about the program to have patience to withstand a rough period of transition. 

 

"Mississippi State is one of the few places in the SEC where basketball has been a hot bed," Ray said at SEC media day. "I know SEC is a football dominant conference and it should be after six straight national championships but like Vanderbilt and Mississippi State are places in the SEC where basketball is a big deal. I think we want to make sure as coaches here at MSU that we continue that tradition."

 

 

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