March 10, 2014 10:39:50 AM
STARKVILLE -- Player development has been the one thing that has given the Mississippi State men's basketball program hope the past two seasons.
Look no further than sophomore guard Fred Thomas.
Thomas has played his best basketball since MSU coach Rick Ray benched him against
Arkansas on Feb. 22. Since that decision, Thomas, the team's best defender, leads MSU (13-18, 3-15 Southeastern Conference) in scoring at 14.8 points per game. In the past month, Thomas has started to deliver what Ray has been looking for the past two years.
"The key is asking if this is just a one-time affair with Fred Thomas or is it a situation that he goes forth from this and does some things he accomplished tonight," Ray said Feb. 26 after Thomas scored 18 points in a 75-68 loss to Tennessee. "He can guard the other team's best player and be effective that way or he can rebound the basketball. Fred Thomas is much more than a 3-pointer shooter if he understands and embraces it."
Thomas embraced that concept Saturday in a 74-62 loss to South Carolina by guarding the Gamecocks' two best players. But Thomas was the only one who bought into Ray's defensive concepts in MSU's 13th consecutive loss.
"Without Fred on (South Carolina guard Brenton Williams) in the second half, he goes off," Ray said. "Somebody else on the court has to be able to defend somebody besides Fred Thomas."
Thomas' development from an athlete at Jackson Jim Hill High School Jackson into a more consistent performer has been evident since he didn't play against Arkansas. Thomas, who is fifth on the team in scoring at 8.9 points per game, has raised his scoring average to 14.7 ppg. in the past four games. He is 23 of 43 (53.5 percent) from the field in the past four games to raise his shooting percentage to 37.2 percent. He has played at least 29 minutes in each of the past four games and has scored in double figures three times.
"What's giving me hope is I've got two more years here," Thomas said. "I'm not going to hang my head. I'm going to play hard all my years here. I'm not going to give up on this team."
MSU will try to end its losing streak and keep its season alive at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday when it takes on Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The Bulldogs finished the regular season with one less conference win than last year and a Ratings Percentage Index ranking of 246 in Division I, according to ESPN.com.
"We're facing a lot of adversity this year. It's hard to get over that hump," Thomas said. "We're trying hard, as you all can see. We just can't get a victory."
Attendance and morale around the program also have dipped this season, so Ray knows next season will be critical if his team is going to move forward with a cast of rising juniors that figures to include Thomas, Craig Sword, and Gavin Ware.
"That really boils down to wins and losses," Ray said. "I don't think you could sit here and say you're pleased with everyone's development when you're losing. I just think that's sending the wrong message and it's not true."
Ray and his coaches have seen players improve. Unfortunately, the individual development hasn't resulted in victories in part due to a lack of depth and a lack of size.
"You've seen guys make individual strides in games," Ray said. "No one can sit here and tell me Trivante Bloodman's not a better player than he was last year. You can't tell me Craig Sword's not a better player than he was last year. Now they need to continue to make jumps in their games."
Last week, Ray stressed the importance of player development. He believes continued improvement by Thomas and the rest of the Bulldogs will help the program reverse its fortunes.
"(The players) look at me as a ready-made product," Ray said. "They understand the money I make, where I live, like that's the way you always have been. They don't understand this is a situation where I came up in an inner city family. We were on welfare. We were on food stamps. We went through winters without having heat. They don't understand that. They don't know that. When you tell them your struggles, how you overcame some of the struggles to be where you are, they start to understand this is a little more than just about basketball."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.