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Bulldogs host South Carolina in SEC opener tonight

 

Matthew Stevens

 

STARKVILLE -- Many coaches will use the cliché line of a college basketball season being the culmination of three different seasons: non-conference, conference and postseason. 

 

Mississippi State men's basketball coach Rick Ray isn't one of them and the Bulldogs first-year leader doesn't believe in wiping the slate clean. 

 

Ray can't do anything but look forward with a team he said this week on the Southeastern Conference "is turning a corner" after playing arguably its best game of the the 2012-13 season. 

 

"I think a big thing for this team is our ability to share the basketball," Ray said. "I thought we took poor shots in the beginning and understanding they got those shots in high school and junior college and now those easy shots weren't there. Now our guys are realizing that making the extra pass and grinding out the shot clock a little longer has been the biggest step forward." 

 

There's no talk of a new season as the Bulldogs (5-7) begin Southeastern Conference play tonight against the University of South Carolina (7 p.m., ESPN3) because the non-conference record is still far below the standards of a normal Bowl Championship Series program. 

 

"The record is what it is," Ray said. "It's not something we'll avoid or look past as we get to league play." 

 

Another three-part way to look at this season for MSU is essentially before, during and after the injury to junior guard Jalen Steele.  

 

The leading returning scorer from last season's roster broke his right shooting wrist on a diving layup against Florida Atlantic nearly two months ago and days before the team was headed to the Maui Invitational. Since that injury, MSU has been consistently going through scoring droughts and have had an inability to find a consistent threat from outside the three-point arc.  

 

MSU is last in the league in field goal percentage, three-point shooting, 12th in scoring and last in assists to turnover ratio. 

 

"If you are a shooter, you are always going to think you're shots going to go in," MSU junior forward Colin Borchert said. "I think the biggest thing is just getting use to it and in front of the big crowds. That's the biggest transition for me to find my sweet spot at the Hump and when to take a good shot." 

 

Another factor to Steele's injury was the idea of having it before two season-ended injuries (guards Jacoby Davis and Andre Applewhite) and a possibly career-ending injury to senior forward Wendell Lewis. MSU has already used five different starting lineups in its first 12 games. 

 

Under coach Rick Stansbury's previous 14 years on the bench, MSU's worst SEC record has been 5-11 and only been under the .500 mark just three times in that period. Once again, Ray has said repeatedly he doesn't care about the past of the program but is currently unsure how his team will handle the rigors of league play with just seven scholarship players. 

 

"He provides spacing as far everybody knowing Jalen Steele can shoot," Ray said. "That's one more person that will double down in the points. That's one less person that will help on Roquez (Johnson) or Chicken's (Craig Sword) drives. I think people get lost in he provides scoring but he's going to help other people score too by simply being out there." 

 

The unknown factor to the success of MSU in a more physically demanding league play is the performance of freshman center Gavin Ware. Ware has been over the double-figure scoring mark in each of the last three games and recorded a double-double in two of those contests.  

 

With only seven scholarship players available, Ware must handle the responsibility of being the only consistent post threat for a smaller MSU squad in his first season of college basketball. Any foul trouble or inconsistent play on either end will put pressure on the Bulldogs in conference play to make outside shots. 

 

"There's a lot of trials and tribulations because we are so small," Ware said. 

 

Ray admitted Monday in the local media gathering at the Humphrey Coliseum he "wasn't coaching Ware as well as he should've been" and has changed the motion offense for him to simply find a way to post immediately after setting his first screen in the half court. 

 

"It has just helped me understand my role as a player and as a big man," Ware said. "When we first started out I was a little confused, but as we got on he made it more simple than complex. I let it come to me and I just started playing my game."

 

 

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