March 15, 2014 7:13:24 PM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State coach Rick Ray shocked many when he proclaimed the opening round game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament would determine the outlook of the next season.
The context of the statement was the emphasis wouldn't be on the result but on the mental outlook of his players heading into a critical offseason. Following a 82-68 victory over Vanderbilt Wednesday, it's not surprising Ray got the effort, the result and a positive future outlook for his program.
"A lot of people could have just pitched up the tent and headed into the offseason content with being in last place and not even trying to advance on in the SEC tournament," Ray said after the win. "Our guys stayed the course and really stuck with it."
The victory not only ended the team's losing streak at 13 games but made it back-to-back years with a victory in the conference tournament for Ray and his program. With MSU finishing the last two years under Ray with a combined 24-41 record and a .194 winning percentage in league games, finding something to push in the offseason to increase the turnaround is more than crucial.
MSU, which ended the season with a 14-19 record, led Ole Miss 44-35 after the first half of the SEC quarterfinal game against the in-state rival. The Bulldogs first 60 minutes of basketball in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta gives Ray a reason to be excited for more victories in the near future.
"I think once we get some depth in our program and we get some guys with a little bit more of a maturation process, our freshmen becomes sophomores, sophomores becoming juniors, I think you can see that we got a lot of that kind of talent in this program," Ray said after the 78-66 loss to Ole Miss Thursday. "We just need some stability as far as depth."
Depth should be arriving at MSU quickly in form of transfer Travis Daniels and four freshmen entering the program to mix in with the core of Craig Sword, Fred Thomas and Gavin Ware.
"The fact that we'll have a full roster and not just a full roster, but a full talented roster," Ray said when asked about the hope of the fan base.
Daniels, who joined the MSU program after having academic eligibility issues while trying to transfer from Shelton State this summer, was unable to get qualified by the NCAA until after the first semester.
During his freshman campaign at Shelton State, Daniels led the Buccaneers to a 28-4 record and a runner-up finish in the Alabama Community College Conference Tournament. The 6-foot-8 forward prepped at Russellville High School where he averaged a double-double his senior year.
Ndoye, who starred at the nationally-recognized Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., isn't eligible to compete until the 2014-15 campaign but was allowed to receive his athletic scholarship for MSU and participate in all practices and workouts this year as a redshirt player.
Ndoye is supposed to help the frontcourt depth that has been a one man show spotlighted on 6-foot-8 center Ware.
"You guys don't see it but Fallou Ndoye is going to be a good player in the SEC," Ray said. "Travis Daniels is going to be a really good player in the SEC."
The task for Ray and his staff in the months leading up to first team practices next winter will be maintaining his ability to continue individual player development with his returning players so the newcomers can mix in slowly.
"We just need to come together," Thomas said. "If we come together, y'all see what we can do. When we spread apart from each other, it's like we go downhill. If we come together, we can be one of the best teams in the SEC."
Thomas was a perfect example to the development Ray has preached since accepting the job two years ago. After being benched for the home loss to Arkansas, Thomas emerged as a better option in all phases of the game at the small forward position. Since being benched against the Razorbacks on Feb. 22, Thomas rebounded to average 15.2 points per game, shoot 53.3 percent from the field and consistently guarded the opponents best scorer.
"There's no question that Fred Thomas is playing the best basketball that he's played here in these past four to five games," Ray said. "Fred could have dropped his head and just really went south but he took (the benching) as motivation and shows what type of person he is. He moved forward from there."
Along with Ndoye, three true freshmen will arrive this summer for MSU to give Ray an anticipation of a double-digit number in scholarship players for the first time of his head coaching career. One of the freshmen expected to make a immediate impact is the third product on this roster from Carver High School in Montogomery, Ala. 6-foot-7 forward Demetrius Houston signed during the early period after taking his high school program to the Class 6A state semifinals for the fourth straight year under head coach James Jackson. Houston was also tabbed an Honorable Mention selection to the Class 6A All-State team.
"Every time we set foot on the court, Demetrius will be one of the best, if not the best, athletes on the court," said Ray on Nov. 13. "He is an elite athlete that comes from a tremendous program at Carver High School. Demetrius is a tall, long wing that we do not have in our current program who will help us become a better rebounding and finishing team."
Mix in the anticipated depth, with the increased maturity in the six returning players on the roster and Ray can see the MSU program becoming a surprise element in the SEC next season.
"I think our guys took that to heart and I shared that with them individually and as a team, this tournament can be an indication of like what you're going to be next season," Ray said. "I think our guys really did a good job of going out and showing what they can do and what they're capable of. We got to make sure that we move forward from here and take this positive experience that we had in the SEC tournament and turn it into a positive experience the next season. I think we're fully capable of doing that."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.