STARKVILLE – (AP) A complete overhaul has rendered Mississippi State's basketball program barely recognizable from a year ago.
Longtime coach Rick Stansbury is gone. So are all five starters and a big chunk of the bench production.
In their place is first-year coach Rick Ray and a band of Bulldogs that are mostly inexperienced, undersized or both. From the outside looking in, it appears Mississippi State might be in store for a long season.
But Ray – who came to Starkville after two seasons as an assistant at Clemson – isn't ready to call this a rebuilding project.
“The one thing I do know is we have willing workers,'' Ray said. “There hasn't been a day we've been on the court where I had to push guys to work hard.''
Still, the road back to respectability appears to be steep.
Stansbury had a largely successful 14-year run at Mississippi State – his 293 career wins are a school record – but he left a program in disarray following a February collapse that left the Bulldogs out of the NCAA tournament.
Though seniors Dee Bost and Brian Bryant exhausted their eligibility, Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney left early to pursue a professional career while budding star Rodney Hood transferred to Duke.
Moultrie's loss was expected – the 6-foot-11 forward was taken in the first round of the NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers.
But the loss of Hood was especially crushing. The 6-foot-6 guard was from nearby Meridian, Miss., and averaged 10.3 points and 4.8 rebounds as a freshman.
That leaves Ray with only two players who played a significant role last season. Junior guard Jalen Steele averaged 8.7 points per game and was second on the team with 70 3-pointers. Senior forward Wendell Lewis averaged 3.8 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, while also leading the team with 30 blocked shots.
Both veterans will be asked to provide the foundation for Ray's first-year in the program.
Ray has Midwestern roots and spent time as an assistant at Indiana State and Purdue before heading to Clemson. That blue-collar background has followed him throughout his career, and he's trying to make Mississippi State a more disciplined team on defense while incorporating a motion-style offense.
But the biggest change is discipline – something that was sorely lacking during Stansbury's final few seasons. Steele said it's been a welcome switch.
“It makes everything easier,'' Steele said. “If somebody's back-talking or trying to do their own thing this year, it's not going to go very well.''
Steele and Lewis will be surrounded by a cast of freshmen and junior college transfers. Freshmen Fred Thomas, Andre Applewhite and Craig Sword will likely see immediate time in the backcourt, as will sophomore junior college transfer Trivante Bloodman. Freshman Gavin Ware and junior college transfer Colin Borchert will be asked to contribute in the frontcourt.
And it is Ray's job to piece everything together very quickly.
Mississippi State is a program that's used to winning. The Bulldogs have been to the NCAA tournament in six of the past 11 seasons.
Ray said his adjustment to being a head coach has been smooth.
“For me, not a lot has changed,'' Ray said. “Obviously I've got total (control) of the process. The big thing for me at this point in time is making sure our guys feel comfortable what they are doing on the court, a lot of repetition and forming habits.''
Ray's been pleased with the results so far, and he's adamant that inexperience won't be used as a crutch.
“I keep telling our guys, you have unbelievable resources available to you,'' Ray said. “Every assistant coach is willing and able to sit down with you whether by film or chalkboard, or going on the court, and teaching you individual things. Take advantage of that.''