Miss. State in a 'rut' as Kentucky comes to town

jtipton@herald-leader.comFebruary 7, 2014 

Mississippi St Mississippi Basketball

Mississippi State Coach Rick Ray's team is down to eight scholarship players. "Physically, our guys are tired," he said.

ROGELIO V. SOLIS — AP

Kentucky's defense against Mississippi State's offense Saturday afternoon sounds like a bowling ball rolling over a peanut.

State Coach Rick Ray offered a simple explanation for his team's struggling offense. "We don't make shots," he said.

Despite that back-to-basics shortcoming, UK Coach John Calipari sounded wary on Friday.

"Georgia was struggling," he said. "They just got 90 (points) at home."

Georgia, which ranked 11th in scoring among Southeastern Conference teams (65.5 ppg), beat LSU 91-78 on Thursday.

Such a revival against Kentucky would startle college basketball. State has lost its last four games, including a 20-point defeat at Texas A&M on Wednesday. The downturn includes the Bulldogs' three lowest-scoring games of the season in the last 10 days; a 62-51 home loss to Florida, a 55-49 loss at Vanderbilt and the 72-52 loss at A&M.

Ray, who lamented how his team had gotten into a "rut," noted the delicate balance between exhorting players while also sounding encouraging.

"You hold guys accountable for wins and losses," he said. "But you also understand your guys have to have confidence."

Ray did not say the State players were leaking confidence. But a difficult final month — which includes road games at LSU and Missouri, plus Tennessee at home — made it sound like the Bulldogs are parched for the kind of tonic a victory over Kentucky would bring.

"Physically, our guys are tired," said Ray, who noted that State remains shorthanded with eight scholarship players available.

State (13-9 overall, 3-6 SEC), has made only 40.4 percent of its shots in the four-game losing streak. The poor shooting has affected the defense as well as the offense.

"The hardest thing to do is get your team to continue to compete on the defensive end when they are not having success on offense," Ray said. "You can talk till you're blue in the face. 'Hey, we've got to get stops. We've got to get stops. It's the only way to stay in the game.'"

But, Ray added, "How many times do you see guys going back on defense after a miss clapping their hands, stomping the floor and being excited."

State lacks a go-to guy, Ray said. Guard Craig Sword, the leading scorer (13.2 ppg), is the most logical candidate. But he's made only 14 of 47 shots (two of nine from three-point range) in the last five games.

Sword needs to develop a mid-range game that includes pull-up jumpers to combat defenses designed to reduce his opportunities to drive, Ray said.

"You can't have a go-to guy scorer (in which) the only thing he does is get to the rim, get to the rim, get to the rim, get to the rim," the State coach said.

Another possible candidate is forward Gavin Ware, but he's been inconsistent: 22 points in the first game against A&M on Jan. 18, 35 points in the next five games.

Ray noted how defenses can more easily contain a low-post scorer like Ware. Conveniently enough, to crowd a zone around Ware also works to clog Sword's potential driving lanes.

"I've never seen so much zone in my life," Ray said.

Although some zone defense helped Kentucky win at Missouri last weekend, Ray does not expect to see a lot of that from the Cats in Starkville.

UK guard Jarrod Polson said he believes Calipari likes what the zone can do.

"But not for the whole game, of course," Polson said. "But for spurts. We're long and athletic. It suits us pretty well."

To bolster the argument that anything can happen, especially on the road, Calipari expressed surprise that Georgia beat LSU on Thursday, that Georgia won at Missouri in an SEC opener and that Vanderbilt beat Tennessee on Wednesday.

Florida, he said, was "head and shoulders above" the other league teams. "The rest of us are kind of lumped in there."

Polson sounded a cautious note. He pointed out that UK's national championship team in 2011-12 needed a rousing comeback, fueled in part by Rodney Hood's injury, to win 73-64 at State two years ago. The Cats, freshmen and veterans, are aware that the peanut could surprise the bowling ball. So, no worries about taking a victory at State for granted.

"I think we know that," Polson said, "and they (the freshmen) know that. And we're going to be ready for the challenge."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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