Unlikely Practices Yield Positive Results for Mississippi StatePosted by Brian Joyce on January 17th, 2013
Brian Joyce is a writer for the SEC microsite and regular contributor for Rush The Court. Follow him on Twitter for more about SEC basketball at bjoyce_hoops.
When Mississippi State assistant coach Wes Flanigan was hired on Rick Ray’s staff in Starkville, he likely had no idea what he was getting himself into. Flanigan was an all-SEC guard who played for Auburn in the mid-90s, but he didn’t imagine that he would have to take the court for the Bulldogs just to field a full 10-man roster in practice. That’s what happens when injuries and departures have depleted the MSU roster down to just seven scholarship players.
“I promised Coach Ray when he gave me the job and this opportunity that I would do anything I could to help the program,” said Flanigan. “I had no idea I’d be out here at practice, 12 to 15 years later, and here it is. I’m 30 pounds overweight but I’m doing what I can to help the team a little bit.” Evidently, Flanigan and the other trainers, coaches, and managers forced into action are making a huge impact on the culture in Starkville. “We go hard at practice. The coaches go at us,” said freshman guard Craig Sword. “They’re moving like they’re still young.” And perhaps that friendly competition is part of the reason Mississippi State surprised a lot of people with two victories to start out SEC play after struggling to win games during the non-conference schedule.
It took what Ray called a “public embarrassment” after the Alabama A&M loss for the Bulldogs to start to turn the corner on defense. The improvement certainly isn’t by coincidence as Coach Ray doesn’t have the bodies to do much else during practice. “They don’t have much of a choice,” Ray said. “That’s all we do, we practice defense. If I had more guys – I can’t hold guys accountable with playing time, but if you’re not willing to play defense and play tough, you’re probably not going to play. Our guys have a mindset right now that defense is the most important thing.”
And what started in practice quickly translated to success in games, ultimately putting MSU into the win column. The Bulldogs currently (as of January 16) sit at third in defensive effective field goal percentage (41.3%), second in turnover percentage (28.0%), second in block percentage (17.4%), and first in steal percentage (16.5%) according to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers in conference-only defensive statistics through their first two games of SEC play (excluding Wednesday night’s game against Alabama). Those are impressive numbers for a team that lost to Troy and Loyola Chicago, in addition to the aforementioned Alabama A&M. For Mississippi State, putting a 37-year old assistant coach into practice gear might not be ideal, but the results are hard to argue with. Practice might not make perfect for the Bulldogs, but the defensive efficiency in SEC play comes about as close to perfect as Ray and company can hope for.