December 17, 2013 10:43:29 AM
STARKVILLE -- When asked what he has learned about his team in his second season as Mississippi State's men's basketball coach, Rick Ray said he knows his personnel better.
Eight games into the 2013-14 season, Ray also realizes Craig Sword is the player the Bulldogs most likely will turn to for a critical basket.
The 6-foot-3 sophomore guard from Montgomery, Ala., is leading MSU (6-1) in scoring at 15.3 points per game. He will look to improve that average at 7 tonight when MSU plays host to Florida A&M at Humphrey Coliseum.
"(Craig Sword) is playing phenomenal," Ray said. "When you start looking at the fact he's shooting something close to or above 70 percent from the field, he has been putting up big man type numbers in terms of efficiency."
Sword has scored 70 points in MSU's last three games, and has at least 22 points in three-straight games. Whether he has made a play on defense to generate offense or he has taken the ball to the basket, Sword has been the primary -- and sometimes only -- form of offense for MSU in the non-conference portion of its schedule. Last week, MSU used a second-half run by Sword to overcome a six-point deficit to Southeastern Louisiana in Tupelo. Sword was the only MSU player to finish in double digits (22 points, 9-of-11 shooting). He reached that mark by taking defenders off the dribble for easy baskets.
"I am trying to let the game come to me more," Sword said. "Last season, I was forcing shots. It was like I always felt like I needed to do something. There is more patience and trying to take better shots."
Florida A&M (2-7) lost to Hampton 72-62 in its last outing Dec. 7. It will test MSU's defensive acumen with a 41.3-percent shooting percentage from the field that ranks 300th in the nation.
"We did a better job of worrying about our defense in the second half," MSU sophomore guard Fred Thomas said after the Southeastern Louisiana game. "That goes for me especially. It is a situation where you can't get worried about your offense when the shots aren't falling. When you play defense hard, it can lead to good offense. That is the focus."
Roquez Johnson left the game after nearly 12 minutes due to an apparent injury to his left knee. He didn't return. Johnson's loss forced an already thin MSU frontline to play Dre Applewhite at power forward for the remainder of the game. Johnson returned to the bench late in the first half with a large knee brace on and a ice bag wrapped around the left knee. Ray said after the game it was unclear how much time the senior would miss, if any.
"The depth issue didn't hurt us so bad because (Southeastern Louisiana) isn't very big," Ray said. "When we start facing SEC opponents, it'll start to be a problem."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.