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MSU, South Carolina face off with two of SEC's new coaches

January 9, 2013

Mississippi State coach Rick Ray, left, gives instruction to his players as they prepare to check ito a game. (Dave Martin, AP)

In Rick Ray's first year as the head coach of the Mississippi State basketball team, he hasn't caught many breaks.

There have been injuries, players suspended and a loss to a Southwestern Athletic Conference school.

"I try to be an upbeat person," Ray said. "You look at what we've been through, you have to look at it in light sometime or else it will drive you crazy and it was purposeful but it was funny at the time."

The Bulldogs (5-7) open Southeastern Conference play at home tonight when South Carolina (10-3) comes calling for a 7 p.m. tip. It can also be seen on ESPN3.

The Gamecocks also have a new head coach in Frank Martin. Martin spent the last five years as the head coach of Kansas State.

"I'm sure he's going through some trials and tribulations and I don't know if they're comparable," Ray said of Martin. "He's a good coach, has a program and an approach that works, but it'll be interesting to see how it plays out for them."

Martin graduated from Florida International in 1993, so he is familiar with the the sport scene in the South and the SEC.

"(I'm) just excited for the opportunity to play in what's proven over the years to be one of the be as good as any league in the country," Martin said. "I grew up an SEC fan, I grew up watching University of Florida basketball and I can't tell you how excited I am of what an honor it is to be a part of this conference."

Martin and Ray have faced some of the same problems in their first years.

The Bulldogs have a young squad with the lone senior, Wendell Lewis, out with a knee injury. They are expected to start three freshman and two sophomores.

"It's just more games," MSU freshman guard Craig Sword said. "We are just going to play our game. We are not worried about it because it's conference play. We are going to come in and play like it's any other game."

The Gamecocks do have a more veteran team and have more experience. South Carolina is led by junior guard Brenton Williams' 13.1 points per game.

"Like all first-year coaches in the program, you have your ups and downs," Martin said. "You have days where you kind of see a little twinkle of a light somewhere that kind of gives you hope to keep pushing. There are days where you look out there and it's dark as heck.

"The kids have fought, they've competed, they've come in every day, they try to do what we are asking them to do and they've embraced the things we are trying to ask from them. There are days where we are doing better than others and that's OK. As a coach, I don't get wrapped up into records. I get wrapped up into, just like raising a child, just like teaching a math class, did we do a better job than we did yesterday? If we did than we are making progress. You just keep you're focus on that."

The Gamecocks will have junior guard Bruce Ellington. Ellington also plays for the South Carolina football team and caught the game winning touchdown pass to beat Michigan in the Outback Bowl Jan. 1.

"The big thing about them is they do a great job of attacking the glass," Ray said. "They run a pinch-post offense and the things they do in transition are a concern but it pales in comparison to what happens when the gall goes up on the rim."

The Bulldogs are coming off a 97-46 win over New Orleans on Thursday.

"They feel good about the way they are playing," Ray said. "They need to keep working, grinding and get better."

MSU is led offensively by sophomore forward Roquez Johnson's 12.4 points per game. Junior Jalen Steele is averaging 11 points, freshman Fred Thomas chips in 10.3 and freshman Starkville native Gavin Ware is averaging 9.3 points per outing.

The Bulldogs are 44-35 in SEC openers and 29-15 at home. They are 2-0 against the Gamecocks to open conference play.

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