State's Rick Ray doing a lot of things right
First thing first: Rick Ray’s eventual success or failure at Mississippi State will depend on his ability to bring talented players who fit his system to Starkville.
Nobody — from John Wooden to Phil Jackson — coaches well enough to win high-level basketball without talent. Nobody.
That said, I greatly admire what Ray has done in his first season at Starkville. In more than half a century of watching Mississippi college basketball, I’ve never seen a team endure as much hardship as Ray’s first State team. He inherited a short deck — and now myriad injuries and his insistence on doing things the right way have left him without much of a hand at all.
• He has instilled discipline off the floor. His guys do it the right way or they don’t play.
• He has instilled discipline on the floor. They play the right way or they don’t play.
• His guys play hard, really hard. And they have continued to play hard despite all of what has happened. They are playing their best basketball in March, which is hard enough if you have a lot of talent, but much more difficult if you don’t.
I’m not going to list all the injuries here, except to say he has lost four players to knee injuries, including his point guard before the season started. He is finishing the season with just six scholarshipped players.
I first met Rick when the day he was hired and came to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum for an early evening press conference. I was impressed with him then, just the way he handled himself around people he didn’t know. I was impressed with what he said about building the program the right way.
I’ve seen nothing to change my mind since. And I am not the only one who has been impressed. Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy at Monday’s C Spire Howell and Gillom Awards luncheon made a point to recognize Ray for the job he has done under the most difficult of circumstances.
Richard Williams, who took Mississippi State to the Final Four in 1996, has watched Ray’s team closely.
“Fans look at wins and losses and that’s pretty much what they base everything on,” Williams says. “Coaches look at other things. I’m watching State play with a depleted roster and Rick’s players continue to play hard and people don’t understand that’s so hard to do. He and his staff have done a really good job.
“Here’s the deal: Right now all they’re playing for is pride, and yet they are playing so hard,” Williams continues. “They are defending and they are playing with purpose. The key, of course, is going to be bringing in more talented players who can compete in the Southeastern Conference.
“He’s got a pretty good base of three freshmen but he’s got to surround them with some more. I know this: He’s a hard worker, he’s really personable and he’s passionate about basketball. I admire all those traits.”
Here’s something else that impressed me about Ray. He made it a point to be here Monday for the awards luncheon, despite the fact he didn’t have a horse in the race.
“I’ll be there because I should be there,” Ray told me at the state high school tournament last week.
And now I’m told that he used his trip to Jackson as a teaching tool. He returned to Starkville for State’s Monday practice in preparation for the SEC Tournament.
He told his players he had attended a wonderful event earlier in the day and told them some about it.
He told them it was the first time Mississippi State had not had a player among the Howell finalists.
He told them he didn’t want that to ever happen again.
He used it as motivation.
And then State went out and impressively won its first round game against South Carolina, winning for the third time in four games.
Again, Ray’s long-term success will depend on attracting better talent. But he is doing a lot of things right in the meantime.