Yeah, basketball season is still a few weeks away. On the other hand, basketball season is a few weeks away, and to get everybody around here back up to speed on the state of hoops in the SEC, I'm writing previews for each of the 14 teams. All work is my own, though I am relying on kenpom.com and sports-reference.com for some statistics. Teams will be previewed in reverse order of their projected finish (according to yours truly), so as this is the first of 14 previews, this is the team I project to finish 14th in the conference.
Mississippi State Bulldogs 2014-15 Basketball Preview
How Did We Get Here?
Rick Stansbury, Mississippi State's all-time winningest basketball coach, left the program after the 2011-12 season; whether he was fired or left voluntarily is still a matter of some debate (Stansbury is now an assistant coach at Texas A&M after two years out of basketball, for what it's worth.) Along with Stansbury, Mississippi State lost seniors Dee Bost and Brian Bryant to graduation; and underclassmen Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney left for the NBA draft. All of these losses were basically expected, although Sidney went undrafted, but then most expected Sidney to only spend a year in Starkville.
What hurt more were the transfers of talented freshmen Rodney Hood (to Duke) and Deville Smith (to UNLV.) Both could have helped coach Rick Ray a lot in his first year in Starkville; instead, Ray was left with a depleted roster that by the time SEC play rolled around was reduced to seven scholarship players, and at times Ray only had six scholarship players at his disposal. The result was what might have been the worst SEC team in recent memory, and that's no exaggeration: both Ken Pomeroy (back to 2002) and sports-reference.com's SRS rating (back to 1980) rated the 2012-13 edition of Mississippi State as the single worst SEC team in that timespan. The fact that they didn't finish last in the conference mostly speaks to Auburn also fielding a terrible team that year.
Last year, the Bulldogs improved somewhat, but still had similar depth issues: after freshman Andre Applewhite left the team at semester break, the Bulldogs had only eight scholarship players. In spite of the improvement they still fielded the worst offense and worst defense on a per-possession basis in SEC play. In conference play, Mississippi State had a -10.6 ppg average scoring margin and twelve of their fifteen losses came by double digits. This team still has a long way to go.
Projected Depth Chart
Quick note: For starters, I'm using the five "traditional" positions on the floor even if the players may be listed otherwise on the roster, so you may see guards appearing as forwards, forwards appearing as centers, etc. Recruiting rankings are the composite rankings from 247sports.com.
- Colin Borchert (26.3 mpg, 8.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg; graduated)
- Andre Applewhite (12 games; 17.8 mpg, 5.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg; transfer/Toledo)
- Jacoby Davis (11.3 mpg, 2.2 ppg, 1.7 rpg; transfer/Odessa JC)
- Tyson Cunningham (walk-on; 7.5 mpg, 1.8 ppg, 0.4 apg; graduated)
- PG I.J. Ready (5'11", 170 Soph., Little Rock, AR)
- SG Craig Sword (6'3", 194 Jr., Montgomery, AL)
- SF Travis Daniels (6'8", 215 redshirt Jr., Russellville, AL)
- PF Gavin Ware (6'9", 260 Jr., Starkville, MS)
- C Fallou Ndoye (6'11", 220 redshirt Fr., Senegal); #65 PF and #278 overall (2013)
- G Fred Thomas (6'5", 206 Jr., Jackson, MS)
- G Trivante Bloodman (6'0", 198 Sr., Bronx, NY)
- F Johnny Zuppardo (6'9", 235 Jr., Bay St. Louis, MS); #12 JC PF and #44 overall JC
- F Roquez Johnson (6'7", 210 Sr., Montgomery, AL)
- G Maurice Dunlap II (6'2", 170 Fr., Greenwood, MS); #69 SG and #288 overall
- F Demetrius Houston (6'7", 205 Fr., Montgomery, AL); #49 SF and #195 overall
- F Oliver Black (6'9", 215 Fr., Jackson, MS); #71 PF and #271 overall
The Bulldogs return four starters from last year's team and 74.5 percent of the minutes played, and while you would think that's a good thing, considering how bad the Bulldogs were last year the six newcomers (jucos Daniels and Zuppardo, redshirt Ndoye, and freshmen Dunlap, Houston, and Black) could all force their way into the rotation.
Mississippi State could ultimately go with a smaller lineup than seen here, but among a ton of other issues, one thing that Rick Ray needs to address is an interior defense that allowed opponents to shoot 54.9 percent on twos in SEC play. Regardless of what else the team does, you're not going to have a good defense when opponents can get that many easy baskets, so figure on Ray giving either Ndoye or Black a long look in the preseason. While both are raw, Mississippi State could really use a rim protector at the defensive end, and any offensive contribution from either of the two is gravy. Ware, for all the good he does as a low-post scorer and rebounder, isn't a shot blocker, and Johnson (who played 23.7 mpg last year but figures to see that number decrease with the new talent on the roster) is overmatched against taller and/or more athletic bigs.
The other thing that really needs to be addressed is shooting: Mississippi State shot 29.7 percent on threes in SEC play. While they wisely didn't attempt that many threes, instead relying on Craig Sword getting to the basket and Ware and Johnson scoring in the low post (though with the latter shooting 48.9 percent on twos), better outside shooting would at least force defenses to play honestly rather than packing the lane and daring Mississippi State to shoot jumpers. The "shooter" on last year's team, Fred Thomas, only shot 31.9 percent from three (and 62.5 percent from the foul line), so he may be replaced. Travis Daniels, who redshirted last year after transferring from Shelton State CC, might directly replace him but Daniels, like Sword, is more of a slasher. Zuppardo at 6'9" has the ability to shoot from the perimeter (43.3 percent on threes at Jones County JC last year, where he averaged 15.2 ppg) and could provide shooting off the bench. Freshman Maurice Dunlap can shoot the rock as well, if YouTube highlight videos are to be believed anyway, and will get a look as well; his minutes will be determined by how quickly he adjusts to the college game. Demetrius Houston, the top-rated player (according to 247sports.com) in the incoming recruiting class, could play as well, though it's not entirely clear where he fits on the roster: the Bulldogs already appear to be fairly set on the wings, but he could force the issue if he's good enough.
Mississippi State played a couple of point guards last year. I.J. Ready was expected to supplant Trivante Bloodman as the starter, but it didn't really happen: Ready struggled to adjust to the college game and also missed some time with injuries, leading to both ultimately playing around 24 minutes a night. Ray would probably really like Ready (who has more potential) to take the starting job by the horns, but Bloodman, the senior, is still available if things go wrong. Either way, this is an offense that committed turnovers on 20 percent of their possessions, so better point guard play is a must if this team is to go anywhere.
Non-conference: Delta State (exhibition, 11/6), Western Carolina (11/14), Mississippi Valley State (11/17), Utah State (11/22), Clayton State (11/24), Corpus Christi Challenge (11/28-19; vs. St. Louis, Bradley/TCU), at Tulane (12/6), at Oregon State (12/13), Arkansas State (12/17), vs. USC Upstate (Jackson, MS; 12/20), Jacksonville (12/23), McNeese State (12/30), Florida State (1/2)
Conference home-and-home: Ole Miss, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Missouri
Conference home games: Florida, Texas A&M, Auburn, South Carolina
Conference road games: Georgia, LSU, Alabama, Kentucky
The non-conference schedule is, to be frank, a joke. The toughest opponent is Florida State, likely a middling ACC team, in the final game before SEC play starts. Even tough-sounding opponents like Utah State and St. Louis are likely going to be rebuilding. There are a couple of power conference bottom-feeders (Tulane, Oregon State, potentially TCU), though at least all of those are away from home, and the mid-majors on the schedule are all projected to finish in the middle or bottom of their conference standings. Shorter version: if the record entering SEC play is worse than 11-2 or so, then it's going to be a long year in Starkville; even a fast start, record-wise, probably shouldn't convince you the Bulldogs are good.
In conference play, MSU does draw a bit of a break with the rebuilding outfits at Ole Miss and Tennessee on the schedule twice, and Vandy and Mizzou don't appear to be too imposing. Drawing Kentucky and Florida once each helps as well.
Of the three bottom-feeders in the SEC last season, Mississippi State probably has the least reason for optimism: unlike South Carolina, the Bulldogs don't have a future first-round draft pick on the roster; and unlike Auburn, they didn't just hire an experienced and accomplished head coach. You'll notice that of the seven scholarship players that Ray had available in his first year in Starkville, five are still on the roster; and while I'm quietly applauding Ray for not running players off in order to engineer a quick turnaround, it also suggests that he hasn't really upgraded the talent level here. While all the newcomers mean that Ray will finally have a full roster at his disposal in his third year in Starkville, none of the newcomers are all that highly regarded; the best player in Mississippi State's recruiting class is rated lower than all but one of Vanderbilt's newcomers, for instance.
Last year's team had a ton of issues, and while the newcomers may help address some of those (and improvement from the holdovers can be expected as well, considering that last year's Mississippi State team was still very young), even if everything works out it's still very difficult to see this team making a push toward the middle of the SEC standings, never mind an NCAA bid. The gulf between Mississippi State and the rest of the conference last year was less than it was the year before, but it was still pretty wide: SRS had Mississippi State at -0.9, with the next-lowest team in the conference (Auburn) coming in at 5.1. (It's rare to even see a power-conference team finish with a negative SRS; the strong conference schedule usually guarantees that all but the worst teams finish in positive territory.) And that's why I have Mississippi State in 14th place: the newcomers and the holdovers aren't going to be nearly good enough to close that big of a gap. Basically, with this team, if things go well, that means they avoid last place in the conference (or, alternatively, somebody else really fell apart); if things go really well, this team avoids playing on Wednesday at the SECT. And that, sadly, looks like the ceiling for Mississippi State in 2014-15.
As for Rick Ray, in his third year in Starkville, and having taken over what really was a dumpster fire, he's been entitled to some time. But he probably does need to at least show some improvement in year three. In year two, the team improved from "worst SEC team ever" to merely a bad SEC team. I doubt anybody at Mississippi State had 14th-place finishes in mind when Ray was hired.