Rick Ray is never afraid to pick up the telephone.
One day, the new Mississippi State coach may call Purdue’s Matt Painter to ask for advice. The next afternoon it could be Brad Brownell of Clemson or former Indiana State coach Royce Waltman.
“Everyone has their mentors,” Ray said, “and those are mine. You’re a fool if you don’t lean on some of the guys you’ve been around that have had success.”
Considering the situation he inherited, no one could blame Ray for seeking a little guidance during his first few months with the Bulldogs. Mississippi State averaged 21 wins in 14 seasons under Rick Stansbury, but the past three years were disasters, as the underachieving Bulldogs missed the NCAA tournament despite boasting top-25 talent.
Stansbury “resigned” last spring and State plucked Ray from Brownell’s staff at Clemson. He had previously worked under Painter at Purdue. Ray, though, had never experienced a scenario as dismal as the one he stepped into in Starkville.
Leading scorer and rebounder Arnett Moultrie left school early for the NBA draft, where he was the 27th overall pick. So, too, did forward Renardo Sidney, who went undrafted. Starting point guard Dee Bost graduated and standout freshman wing Rodney Hood transferred to Duke.
Just when it appeared as if things couldn’t get any worse, freshman point guard Jacoby Davis, a projected starter, tore his ACL during summer workouts.
“The injury to Jacoby was more devastating than anything,” Ray said. “We felt like he was really going to help us on both ends of the floor.”
Bleak as things may appear to outsiders, Ray refuses to let the situation dampen his spirits.
“At the end of the day, you play only eight or nine guys,” he said. “Obviously you’d like to have some depth so you can have competition at practice. But when it’s all said and done you’re only going to play eight or nine guys. And we’ve definitely got some kids that know how to play.”
One of them is leading returning scorer Jalen Steele, a junior shooting guard who averaged 8.7 points last season. More than any player, Ray is counting on Steele to be the Bulldogs’ catalyst this season. Not just on the court, but off of it, too.
“I don’t know if I’ve been around a more professional kid as far as his approach to basketball as Jalen Steele,” Ray said. “He gets to the gym early and is already in a full sweat before we ever begin our workouts. Then he stays afterwards. He’s very attentive and has been correcting everyone else’s mistakes. On top of that, he’s probably one of the better shooters I’ve ever been around.”
Steele is one of just two returning players who saw significant minutes last season. The other is 6-foot-9, 260-pound forward Wendell Lewis, who is regarded as one of the top shot-blockers in the SEC. Lewis averaged 3.8 points off the bench last season, but with Moultrie and Sidney gone, he’ll likely be MSU’s top player in the paint in 2012-13.
“The biggest thing about Wendell is that he has to mature as a kid,” Ray said. “He has to have a much more serious approach to the game of basketball. Athletically, you’re talking about a guy with an SEC body, SEC athleticism and SEC length. He has all of that. The physical part isn’t the problem.
“But mentally, can he make the transition into being a front-line guy? If he takes the game a little more serious, he’s going to be a good player for us.”
The biggest question mark for the Bullies is at point guard. With Bost no longer on the roster and Davis out for the season, Ray said freshman combo guard Craig “Chicken” Sword will have to play exclusively at the point, where he’ll compete for minutes with Juco recruit Trivante Bloodman. Sword is the highest-rated prospect in Ray's first recruiting class.
Whoever ends up starting, Ray understands that his first season in Starkville will be full of ups and downs. The SEC is loaded with Kentucky, Florida and Missouri all expected to open the season in the top 25. Tennessee could have one of its best teams in years and Arkansas and Ole Miss should be much improved.
Still, Ray is confident the Bulldogs can win their share of games, too. Ray said he feels fortunate that former bosses such as Painter and Brownell didn’t pigeon-hole him as a recruiter and instead gave him opportunities to run individual workouts and have input when it came to Xs and Os.
“I’ve learned from some of the best,” Ray said. “With Matt Painter, you’re talking about a three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year -- and he’s going against guys like Tom Izzo and Thad Matta. Those are some heavy hitters.
“To the common fan, the name Brad Brownell won’t resonate. But anyone who is around basketball knows that Brad is one of the finest Xs and Os coaches in the game right now. He probably does a better job of developing kids as anyone in the nation.”
Ray said his goal is to play an up-tempo style that will keep opponents “on their heels.” But he realizes that’s sometimes easier said than done.
“At the end of the day, coaches get paid millions of dollars to stop you from doing it,” he said. “The surest sign of a bad basketball team is a team that gives up points in transition. When the opportunities aren’t there, I'll run motion offense. I want to give guys freedom and give guys who have a lot of versatility a chance to make plays.”
Pleased as he is with the work ethic of his current players and the response he’s getting on the recruiting trail, the thing that encourages Ray the most is the support he’s received from fans. When the Bulldogs are winning, there aren’t many home-court advantages in the SEC as strong as the one in Starkville.
Ray said he senses an eagerness among the MSU fanbase to get the program rebuilt in a hurry. He’s going to try his best to make it happen.
“Mississippi State is one of the few schools in the SEC where basketball matters,” he said. “The SEC has a huge reputation in football. They’ve won six or seven straight national championships, so that’s justified. But at places like Vanderbilt and Kentucky, basketball really matters.
“It’s like that here in Starkville, too. That’s the main reason I took the job and the main reason I think we can get it done here.”