STARKVILLE, Mississippi — Mississippi State has been hampered by injuries and attrition during Rick Ray's first two years as coach.
Now the Bulldogs finally hope they have a full roster that can compete in the Southeastern Conference.
A nucleus of three juniors — Craig Sword, Gavin Ware and Fred Thomas — will be the foundation of this year's Mississippi State team. Sword's 13.7 points per game last season led the Bulldogs, but the 6-foot-3 guard is battling a back injury and might not be ready for the beginning of the schedule.
That's where Ray hopes a little added depth could help.
"For the first time, we should have some options and an ability to play different styles," Ray said.
Thomas said the influx of new talent has made a big difference even in preseason practice.
"Now we're able to get different looks out there," Thomas said. "We can play small and fast or we can put some big guys out there. When somebody's not playing well, we can sit them down for a minute and give someone else a chance."
The continued development of Thomas, Ware and Sword will be one of the important factors if the Bulldogs want to improve on last season's 14-19 record, including a 3-15 mark in conference.
The 6-foot-5 Thomas is already the team's best perimeter defender, but would like to improve on a 38.2 shooting percentage from last season. The 6-foot-9, 260-pound Ware averaged 10.0 points and 7.2 rebounds, but battled inconsistency and occasional foul trouble.
Ray says outside shooting might be a struggle again for the Bulldogs this season. Mississippi State shot just 30.7 percent from 3-point range last season.
Things to watch for Mississippi State basketball this season.
THE 3-MAN NUCLEUS: Juniors Craig Sword, Gavin Ware and Fred Thomas will be counted on to provide a big chunk of this year's offensive and defensive production. Because of a thin roster the past two years, the trio has received a ton of playing time and has plenty of experience against Southeastern Conference competition. Sword led the team with 13.7 points per game last season.
SHOOT TO WIN: Mississippi State's had several problems over the past few seasons, but one of the biggest is a lack of outside shooting. The Bulldogs made just 30.7 percent of their 3-point attempts last season, which ranked last in the league. Coach Rick Ray says outside shooting won't be the team's strength this season, but he hopes it is at least improved.
A LITTLE SIZE: Ray said he's excited about the presence of 6-foot-11 redshirt freshman Fallou Ndoye, who is expected to be the first true shot blocker the Bulldogs have had since Jarvis Varnado roamed the paint. Ndoye's presence should make other teams think twice before charging into the paint.
NEW BLOOD: Mississippi State should have its deepest roster during Ray's three-year tenure with the Bulldogs. Freshmen like Oliver Black, Demetrius Houston, Maurice Dunlap and junior college transfer Travis Daniels will have an immediate chance to earn a spot in the rotation, especially since Sword is battling a back injury and might not be ready for the beginning of the season.
TIME TO IMPROVE: There wasn't much doubt that Ray inherited a substantial rebuilding project when he took over Mississippi State's basketball program in 2012. But the first two seasons were even worse than many imagined. After a 24-41 record (including a 7-29 SEC record) through two seasons, Bulldog fans are anxious to see serious improvement.
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