Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy, Biletnikoff Award and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt was awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2000 and 2015.
Player shortage limits Bulldogs
Mississippi State guard Jalen Steele (0) was briefly benched to ice his knees during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Tennessee at Thompson-Boling Arena, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Adam Brimer)
FAYETTEVILLE To prepare for Arkansas’ pressure defense, many opponents have practiced with seven or eight players on defense to simulate the Razorbacks’ trapping style.
Mississippi State Coach Rick Ray doesn’t have that luxury.
“We have a hard time just getting five guys out there, let alone six or seven,” Ray said.
The Bulldogs (7-9, 2-2 SEC) will bring seven scholarship players and two walk-ons into Wednesday night’s game against the Razorbacks (11-6, 2-2) in Walton Arena. Mississippi State lost freshmen guards Andre Applewhite and Jacoby Davis to season ending knee injuries before playing a game, then senior center Wendell Davis sustained a knee injury that likely will sideline him the rest of the season after he played in eight games.
“We’re trying to find away with managers, athletic trainers, coaches ... just to get bodies out on the court,” Ray said of the Bulldogs’ practices. “But even with those guys being out there, the problem is still trying to simulate what Arkansas does with their length and athleticism.
“We just have to really just concentrate on our guys getting better when we do our drills against the press whether it be 2-on-1 or 3-on-2, and getting our guys to handle the basketball vs. pressure.”
Mississippi State assistant coach Wes Flanigan, a former Little Rock Parkview and Auburn guard, has been taking part in practices. He was senior at Auburn during the 1996-1997 season and is now 37.
“I promised Coach Ray when he gave me the job and this opportunity that I would do anything I could to help the program,” Flanigan told the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger. “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.”
At least Flanigan is still able to practice. Graduate assistant Nick Lagoone went down with a knee injury in early December.
The Bulldogs had six scholarship players earlier in the season before junior guard Jalen Steele, who is averaging a team-high 11.1 points, came back from a wrist injury.
Steele, the only Mississippi State player with starting experience before this season, has been joined in the lineup by freshmen and sophomores.
“To say he is our only experienced guy is kind of an understatement,” Ray said. “The thing that Jalen provides for us is first of all he is a great shooter.
“When you have got a guy that can shoot the basketball like that, you can do some things in your motion offense to try to get him shots. Even more importantly, he provides spacing on the court, because nobody is going to leave Jalen out on the perimeter.”
A key for the Bulldogs likely will be if they limit their turnovers against Arkansas’ defense and get enough quality shots for Steele and their other players.
“We’ve just got to be calm,” Mississippi State freshman guard Fred Thomas said.
The Bulldogs had 21 turnovers and shot 35.6 percent from the field (16 of 45) in a 73-45 home loss to Alabama last week.
“I think anybody that saw that film sees that we might struggle vs. a run-and-jump and presses, and that’s obviously all Arkansas does, is press,” Ray said. “So we’ve got to take care of the basketball, that will be our No. 1 concern.”
Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson always wants to use his bench to wear down opponents.
“It’s a concern no matter who we’re playing that we’re going to have a short bench compared to theirs, but it can be doubly more so with Arkansas’ pressure,” Ray said. “We have to make sure we’re not rushing to try to break the press.
“We need to take our time inbounding the basketball and not be in a rush. We’re not going to get any fast-break points against their press.”
Tennessee Coach Cuonzo Martin, whose Volunteers beat the Bulldogs 72-57 last Saturday, said he’s impressed with how Ray is handling Mississippi State’s roster in tough circumstances.
“When you’re taking over a program, regardless of the personnel, I think the first thing you have to do is get those guys to play hard, and that’s what Rick is doing,” Martin said. “His guys come out and still do a great job of battling.
“They execute on both ends of the floor, they compete, and he has some really good freshmen. So he has a lot to build on.”
Sports, Pages 15 on 01/22/2013