February 17, 2014 8:05:03 PM
STARKVILLE -- Basically Rick Ray is confounded by the same problem he found himself in last year.
The Mississippi State men's basketball coach admitted this week repeated depth issues with his program have made it impossible for him to discipline on-the-court problems.
"This is the second straight year we've had 7, 8 or 9 scholarship players on the roster and next year is the first year we'll have 12 or 13," Ray said Monday. "It becomes difficult to hold guys accountable when you don't have a substitution pattern or more than anything, competition for those minutes."
In his 11 months on the job, Ray has not had a problem disciplining players for off-the-court behavior as three players have been dismissed from the program and two current players have been suspended for at least a game. However, when the goals on the court aren't being met, Ray and the MSU staff are forced to keep running the same collection of eight scholarship players in the rotation.
"I've got an assistant coach here that's been a longtime fan of the SEC (Wes Flanigan) and he says besides John Brady coming into LSU when he did, he doesn't know of a more difficult situation than we're facing here," Ray said. "It's just a fact that we've dealt with a lot of issues personnel wise since we got to the program. That's not something to say 'hey, feel sorry for me' but I think it's lost upon people."
A perfect example of this problem is the play of sophomore shooting guard Fred Thomas. Last year, Thomas, a 19.9 points per game scorer at Jim Hill High School in Jackson, was a reckless shooter that allowed his spotty offense to translate into a lack of focus on the defensive end. Even as a first-yeat head coach Ray would've normally chalked up that kind of raw talent but lack of experience to being a freshman at the collegiate level. However, without a backup at the small forward wing position, Thomas was forced to continue to draw 19 starts and suffer more and more blows to his confidence as the 2012-13 season dragged on.
In 2013-14, Thomas is still just shooting 33.7 percent and 29.2 percent from 3-point range but there was a five-game window from Dec. 13-23, where Ray was able to remove him from the starting lineup thanks to the emergence of Dre' Applewhite.
The 6-foot-5 wing was coming off a torn ACL and meniscus in his left knee that required season-ending surgery but looked athletic on the defensive end and invigorated to be in the lineup. Applewhite averaged 5.5 points and 3.9 rebounds in 17.5 minutes per game in 12 games but then suddenly left the program once the team got back together after Christmas break.
"That's a great question," Ray said on Jan. 6 when asked why Applewhite would decide to transfer in the middle of the season.
Applewhite would eventually announce his intention to transfer to Toledo with a hope of being eligible to play in the 2013-14 season. With Applewhite gone, Thomas was required to be put back in the starting lineup regardless of his current play but because of default depth issues.
With the current MSU (13-12, 3-9 in Southeastern Conference) rotation of players heading into Wednesday's road test at LSU (7 p.m., SEC TV) only the point guard, shooting guard and power forward positions have scholarship backup players. When freshman IJ Ready has been out with injury or sickness this season, only Craig Sword and Colin Borchert could be subbed out for experienced members of the roster.
"We had four players sitting on the bench in the first half against Auburn and that's when they increased their lead," Ray said. "In hindsight, I probably should've played one or two fouls right there but if they'd fouled out earlier, I would've been kicking myself for playing guys in the first half with two fouls."
Backup guard Trivante Bloodman averages 24 minutes per game and has drawn 11 starts in emergency situations this season. The 5-foot-10 point guard has a assist-to-turnover ratio of 2-to-1 and is keeping himself on the court by his effort more than any other basketball skill.
"His improvement is really a credit to him because I think he's made more of a improvement on our team than anybody," Ray said Monday. "He's getting into the lane and making good decisions."
Gavin Ware has spent the last two seasons as a center without a backup and his competition in practice, Fallou Ndoye, isn't able to compete until the 2014-15 campaign. Ndoye, a 6-foot-11 center from Findlay Prep in Nevada, is allowed to receive his athletic scholarship for MSU and participate in all practices and workouts this year as a redshirt player.
"I'm trying right now to do anything I can to help my team and so right now if my legs have to be almost gone after a game, I still have to push forward in order for them to be successful," Ware said.
Ray admits the 270-pound post player has gotten better with his stamina as compared to last year but forcing the Starkville High star to play 25 minutes a game in his first two seasons wouldn't have been the utopian plan.
"(Gavin) is a little better but at times I still think he gets winded and I'm not sure if the fatigue factor is because he needs to lose a few pounds or because he's getting mentally fatigue by being our only post player on both ends of the floor," Ray said.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
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