November 7, 2013 1:43:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- The last thing Rick Ray believes about his men's basketball team is just because they're a year older doesn't necessarily make them better at the game.
The Mississippi State head coach enters his second year in Starkville with all five starters back from one of the most frustrating seasons of his coaching career. Ray is the first to point out that counting returning starters and returning lettermen from a team is a lazy path to determining a team's future success.
"I don't know if that's true," Ray said when asked if his team is relaxed knowing it can't get worse from the 2012-13 season. "It is possible we could have less wins, more injuries and no one knows that for sure."
As MSU enters its new season Friday night in a home game against Prairie View A&M, which finished 15-19 last season, the major question on Ray's mind is how improved the team actually has gotten after summer and fall conditioning drills.
"It still remains to be seen if our guys have gotten better because it's hard for me to stand here and tell you Fred Thomas is a better shooter or Gavin Ware is a more conditioned athlete until they go out and prove it against other opponents," Ray said. "Eventually there needs to be results against opposing teams."
The laundry list of improvements that had to be made from a 10-22 season that saw as little as six scholarship players due to injuries and player suspensions included player weights, identifying specific skills and even evaluating Ray himself as a head coach.
Ray identified Thomas, a sophomore guard, as the most improved member of the team as he continues to add muscle and improve his shooting figures from a learning experience that was last season. Thomas stands at about 203 pounds now, far removed from the skinny athlete from Jackson that signed with MSU under previous head coach Rick Stansbury. Also he's looking to get back the one skill he thought he was naturally bringing to campus - his jump shot. Thomas shot 32.8 percent from the field and 23.8 percent from three-point range in 28.7 minutes per game. These numbers just don't replicate the form of the 6-foot-5 wing when the basketball leaves his right hand.
"I think Fred has the talent to be a guy that can go out and get 15 points a night but we can't have Fred getting 24 points one night and then nine points the next game," Ray said. "Fred will be a good shooter over his career despite what the percentages say because you just look at the fundamentals of his stroke."
Thomas, who was 3-of-7 from the field in a 86-57 victory over Auburn University at Montgomery last week in a exhibition game, says he believes the shooting statistics will change based on his maturity of figuring out the definition of a good shot.
"The way I can get those percentages back up is by being patient and that's something in my mind all day, everyday," Thomas said. "I've turned down shots this season because I'm tired and the ball probably wasn't going in. I hope that's developing and maturing as a player."
Ware, a sophomore center, has dropped 28 pounds since arriving on campus and according to MSU strength and conditioning coach Richard Atkins is at his targeted weight of 262.
Ware, who grew up in Starkville modeling his game after All-NBA first team selection center Dwight Howard, was able to turn back the clock with his game but yet average 8.4 points and a team-best 6.4 rebounds per game in his freshman season at MSU. He'll be half of the two-man combination with freshman point guard IJ Ready in Ray's motion offense.
Part of that weight loss for Ware has been simply identifying what he can and can't eat from a calorie standpoint on a daily basis. These habits exclude late night trips to Waffle House as a freshman before last season began.
"Over a period of time once he started losing weight and getting stronger in the weight room, (Ware) started to see his game improve," Akins said. "If you can ever get them to that point early in their careers, it's a lot easier."
With the new officiating points of emphasis demanding freedom of movement for players, Ray is still concerned about injuries and foul trouble with his frontcourt depth that essentially includes just three players (Ware and senior forwards Colin Borchert and Roquez Johnson).
"I've got to be very conscious of the new rules because there's just nobody behind me at center so I'm aware that fouling can put me on the bench and now there's two power forwards out there then," Ware said. "It's a big responsibility there's no doubt about it."
In the team's media day at Humphrey Coliseum, Ray talked about how he learned as a coach how to better handle practices with patience when instructing a young, immature team. Last season Ray would immediately stop practice when a player did a fundamental thing wrong instead of letting the possession finish with a rebound. This led, he believes, to the Bulldogs being just 11th in the league in rebounds per game.
"One thing I've focused on this year as a coach is letting guys play through a possession no matter how many mistakes I saw," Ray said. "What I had to do is train myself to let that possession play out and pull that player aside afterwards because we weren't practicing the end result of a defensive stop, which is the rebound."
With MSU looking to avoid back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1988 and 1989, the improvement will be clearly dictated by the core of team coming back simply not relying on osmosis for a better record.
"We tell our guys all the time it's really hard to suggest just because I'm a year older that I'm a year better at my craft," Ray said. "It's about the hard work you put into your game that will determine if your better. Not just that you're a year older than somebody else."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.