November 14, 2013 10:28:10 AM
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State men's basketball program isn't in the position to pick or to choose its prospects from lists of the nation's top 100 players.
That's why MSU coach Rick Ray and his staff eschewed national acclaim as a prerequisite in the early signing period and tried to find players who were the best fit for the program. The 62nd-ranked recruiting class, according to 247Sports.com, may not appeared to be a big recruiting victory, but Ray feels he has addressed needs for his program.
"The one thing you need to do is continue to get guys that can make shots," Ray said in a teleconference Wednesday before he could announce his signing class. "We want to make sure we recruit guys with a skill set that can do the fundamentals of dribble, pass, and shoot."
The announcement that recruits Demetrius Houston, Oliver Black, and Maurice Dunlap II had signed National Letter of Intents added three more players who will join Ray in his rebuilding efforts at MSU.
"We put an inordinate amount of time in skill development in our program, but if you don't want to work then there's no way you're going to get better as a basketball player, so the intangible things are what you're looking for," Ray said. "We can make a kid better only if he's willing to work."
With Houston, Ray and his assistants landed a 6-foot-7 forward from Montgomery (Ala.) Carver High School, which is where MSU sophomore Craig Sword played. Houston and Sword were named Class 6A All-State selections from the same program MSU senior forward Roquez Johnson was a part of. Former MSU coach Rick Stansbury and his staff signed Sword and Johnson, but Ray kept that relationship alive and was able to lure Houston, a three-star prospect, according to ESPN.com, to Starkville. Houston also received offers from Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, George Mason, and Seton Hall
"Every time we set foot on the court, Demetrius will be one of the best, if not the best, athletes on the court," Ray said in a university release. "He is an elite athlete that comes from a tremendous program. Coach (James) Jackson has built a special program that has some of the same philosophies we believe in here. Demetrius is a tall, long wing we do not have in our program who will help us become a better rebounding and finishing team."
As a junior last season, Black averaged 10.1 points per game, nine rebounds, and five blocked shots for coach Herman Sanders at Wingfield High School in Jackson. Ray and his coaches hope their ability to identify potential for growth will help Black become a contributor for the Bulldogs. Black chose MSU over Ole Miss, Tulane, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Wichita State.
"Oliver is a young man who always had a high ceiling but continually got better every time I or my staff saw him play," Ray said. "The biggest reason he will blossom is because he has a great work ethic. Oliver will also be a huge help in an area that we struggled in last season, rebounding. He chases and pursues rebounds with the best of them."
Dunlap II, a Greenwood prospect, averaged 14.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game last season to lead Amanda Elzy to the Class 4A State Championship for the second year in a row and a 32-5 record. Ray isn't worried about having a backcourt of Dunlap II and point guard IJ Ready, a freshman this season, that doesn't include a guard taller than 6-1 because of Dunlap's shooting range. Dunlap selected MSU over Ole Miss, Louisiana Tech, and Alcorn State.
"Maurice and his family showed a lot of faith in me and our program when he committed to us in the summer soon after I got the job here at Mississippi State without a body of work in which to judge me," Ray said. "That faith meant a lot to my staff and I. When it is all said and done, you need guys on your team who can shoot the basketball, and Maurice is an excellent shooter. He is a high-character person that puts in extra time on the court to work on his game."
The one wild card for Ray is Elijah Staley, who won't sign until February because he will receive a football scholarship from MSU coach Dan Mullen. The 6-6, 230-pounder from Georgia expects to try to play football and basketball at MSU. The willingness of the school to give him the chance to do that is why he opted out of his verbal commitment to Vanderbilt. Staley is expected to enroll early at MSU after being dismissed from his high school football squad after reported disagreements with Wheeler coach Mike Collins, who didn't want his quarterback changing plays or making substantial adjustments at the line of scrimmage.
Staley, who had basketball offers from Vanderbilt, Georgetown, Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Auburn, was named one of Reebok's top 25 most dynamic high school athletes this year.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.