Breyana Ray’s plan for New Year’s Eve was modest in its aspirations.
Nothing more than a quiet and quaint outing for dinner and a movie with her husband Rick Ray. The idea held no appeal for the first-year Mississippi State basketball coach.
A day before, the Bulldogs brought about their own ignominy: .osing 59-57 on their home floor in Starkville to Alabama A&M, a Southwestern Athletic Conference school with roughly 4,900 students and a basketball budget of $604,570 in 2012.
Pegged to finish last in the Southeastern Conference, the upset saddled Ray’s program with the inglorious distinction of the worst nonconference record during a portion of the schedule when SEC members lost to Marist, Indiana State, Elon, Southern and Tulane.
While Ray felt no inclination to show his face around Starkville after the loss, the message to Mississippi State required a different crux.
“We needed to get over the public embarrassment of that loss,” Ray said.
Over the past two weeks, it’s become rote to skewer the SEC as the nation’s worst power conference in basketball. For all the conference’s cache and pride on the football field, the dearth of quality hardwood programs outside of Kentucky, Florida and Missouri seemingly is framed by pundits as apathy and neglect for a sport whose postseason tournament will net $10.8 billion in revenue under its current 13-year TV deal.
Yet reveling in the SEC’s woes, which might stem partially from a desire to humble an implied arrogance, ignores the reality of what has fostered the decrepit state of college basketball across swaths of the South.
The Bulldogs program inherited by Ray, a 40-year-old coming off three seasons as an assistant coach at Clemson, is the best case study.
In March 2012, Rick Stansbury retired after a pair of seasons that could best be described as rocky.
Prize recruit Renardo Sidney sat out a season and nine games of his second go-round in 2010 for receiving impermissible benefits. That season also grabbed the Bulldogs YouTube acclaim for pinning down a teammate and pummeling him in the stands during a pregame fight at a tournament in Hawaii.
Oh, and Stansbury banned his players from Twitter after former guard Ravern Johnson criticized the coaching staff in a post, followed by the Bulldogs losing five consecutive games and falling in the first round of the NIT.
The first months of Ray’s tenure weren’t spared from tumult, either.
Senior guard Dee Bost graduated. Forward Arnett Moultrie left for the NBA, where he was taken with the No. 27 pick in the first round by Miami and traded to Philadelphia. Sidney also declared for the draft but was passed over. Next, Ray lost his best returner in guard Rodney Hood, who after three months of internal wooing announced in July he was transferring to Duke.
Injuries also beset his thin roster. Guard Jacoby Davis went down with an anterior cruciate ligament tear in July, as did backcourt partner Andre Applewhite in early November. Center Wendell Lewis fractured his knee cap in practice last month and was slated to miss at least eight weeks.
Have you kept up so far? Because it’s meant Ray has a roster with a paltry six scholarship players at times, and getting guard Jalen Steel back from injury last week brought the total to a “booming” seven.
“It’s been tough for us as far as our practice situation,” Ray said. “We haven’t had a chance to get better in practice a lot, because we’re playing against managers and coaches.”
Critique Ole Miss, a potential SEC title contender, for losses to Middle Tennessee and Indiana State. Snicker at Alabama falling in consecutive games to Dayton, Mercer and Tulane.
But leave Mississippi State out of your roasting of the SEC, a league that has seen half of its 14 programs undergo coaching changes the past two seasons.
Even with a full roster, Ray inherited a complicated situation at a program whose $5.4 million budget is the third-lowest in the SEC and faces challenges recruiting consistently to a rural town of 23,000 in Oktibbeha County — a name seemingly lifted from a William Faulkner tome — and averaging an SEC-low 4,840 fans.
That’s what made the loss to Alabama A&M leave a deeper bruise: It gave an already fickle fanbase reason to doubt the process unfolding under Ray, a bright mind who majored in applied mathematics and cut his teeth at Indiana State, Northern Illinois and Purdue.
“Everybody felt outside the program that we were not getting better,” Ray said.
Now it’s easy to lack empathy for a man earning roughly $1 million annually as part of a four-year contract, but Ray’s situation leaves him striking bargains that compromise basic guidelines imposing discipline for mistakes in practice, effort in games and bad habits ingrained from his frustrating practice setup.
“It’s been harder on the court because of our limited roster,” Ray said. “Guys are going to play. So some of these guys that are inexperienced freshmen have to go out and play continually despite making mistakes.”
Almost miraculously, the Bulldogs have scraped and cobbled together a three-game winning streak in the aftermath of their notorious loss. They routed UNO at home and knocked off South Carolina and Georgia — or anticipated cell mates at the bottom of the standings — to open conference play.
It’s unlikely the Bulldogs’ 2-0 start is hinting at a stunning run to an SEC title, but it injects enough good vibes to leave Ray comfortable.
“I hope we don’t have to continue to bottom out in order to get better,” Ray said.
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