December 13, 2013 11:13:35 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State men's basketball coach Rick Ray is debating lineup changes seven games into the 2013-14 season.
To counter the Bulldogs' slow starts, Ray may tinker with the lineup even though the team doesn't have a lot of depth in the frontcourt.
In its first seven games, Ray has watched MSU (5-2) fall behind in four games and trail at halftime in three. In five games, MSU has scored more points in the second half.
"The thing we have to nail down is why we tend to get off to slow starts in the first half, (and) I think it's a mental thing with us being wrapped up in our offense," said Ray, whose team will take on Southeastern Louisiana (3-5) at 7 tonight at newly-renovated BancorpSouth Arena in Tupelo. "We may have to change personnel in terms of who we start."
One of the lineup changes could involve freshman point guard IJ Ready returning to the starting lineup. Ready played in a 71-61 loss TCU on Dec. 5 in Starkville after recovering from a severe hamstring injury. Ready hit three 3-pointers in the game.
"If things were progressing the way I wanted to with him, he would've been back a long time ago, but that's not fair to IJ or the training staff," Ray said. "He's where he needs to be at. IJ needs to continue to be fair to the process by being truthful with what is going on with his body. IJ is such a tough kid that he'll tell us it's not hurting him because he wants to continue to play."
Ready was critical of his teammates' work ethic, saying MSU was "basically a team filled with guards except for Gavin Ware" and the Bulldogs weren't putting the time in before and after practice so they could make open shots in games.
"We need to get (Craig Sword) more help on the offensive end," Ready said. "If we are going to shoot 18 3-pointers in the game, we have to make more of them. We have to get to the gym and make shots. Some of us aren't getting in the gym and putting the work in."
SE Louisiana dropped a 74-73 decision to Southeast Missouri State on Saturday. Three of its other losses have come to Southeastern Conference members Missouri, LSU, and Arkansas. The Lions are 309th of 345 Division I schools in field goal percentage defenses (48 percent).
Ready said he was frustrated with MSU's defensive effort that led to the Bulldogs inability to get key stops. TCU's ability score easily allowed it to set up its zone defense and turn the game into a half-court affair.
"It starts with our defense," Ready said. "We have to get in practice and work harder at getting stops. Some of the guys on this team have to know our wins will come when we decide to play better defense. That's when our offense will turn around."
Ready missed nearly a month with the hamstring injury he suffered in the second game of the season against Kennesaw State. In 23 minutes against TCU, Ready didn't have an assist but scored nine points. Ray said after the game he was cautious about using Ready too much in his first game back from injury.
Even though MSU has played six of its seven games at Humphrey Coliseum, it has shot 29.5 percent from 3-point range. That mark is tied for 263rd in the country, and has allowed defenses to sit back in passive zone defenses.
"Teams are so concerned about the foul situations that they are just zoning us more and more and we're incapable right now of shooting our way out of the zone," Ray said. "We got a way to be effective against the zone."
Tonight's game marks 10 years to the day since MSU's last visit to BancorpSouth Arena, a 77-59 win against New Orleans in 2003.
"We're really excited about playing this game in Tupelo," Ray said. "Ever since I got this job there's been a outcry from the community in Tupelo to do something there. This is always a delicate week for our players because of finals."
In addition to its shooting struggles from 3-point range, MSU is 315th in the nation in free-throw percentage (62.4 percent). All but three players are shooting less than 63 percent from the foul line.
"It's an emphasis for us, but I think part of the reason for that statistic is our two worst free throw shooters, Craig Sword and Roquez Johnson, are the two best players we have at attacking the basket," Ray said. "What it's just going to take is guys getting in the gym and working on the free throw. It's absolutely on them."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.