- Associated Press - Friday, February 14, 2014

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi State’s second season under coach Rick Ray is starting to look a lot like the first.

A good start to Southeastern Conference play in January has turned into a mirage, and the Bulldogs are now stuck in a six-game losing streak that shows no sign of ending soon.

Mississippi State (13-11, 3-8 SEC) begins a two-game road trip against Auburn (11-11, 3-8) on Saturday. The Bulldogs beat Auburn three weeks ago in Starkville, but haven’t won a true road game all season.

Ray said the losses are troubling, but not as much as the lack of improvement. The team’s young core of sophomores Craig Sword, Gavin Ware and Fred Thomas hasn’t progressed much and a lack of depth means there’s nowhere else to turn for production.

“I can’t put my finger on (the problem), but we’ve got to figure it out,” Ray said.

The long losing streak is reminiscent of last season, when the Bulldogs dropped 13 straight games during SEC play and finished with a miserable 11-20 record.

Senior Tyson Cunningham said this shouldn’t be happening again.

“We’re more mature this year and these are things we can control,” Cunningham said. “Last year we were young and some things just happened. This year I think a lot of things are in are control and we can change it.”

Time is running out.

Ray has kept a positive outlook through most of the season - even during the current losing streak - but he couldn’t contain his disappointment following Wednesday’s 75-55 loss to Georgia on the Bulldogs‘ home court.

Mississippi State had a 22-8 lead midway through the first half, but was outscored 67-33 the rest of the night. Georgia shot 17 of 23 (73.2 percent) from the field in the second half.

And when Mississippi State’s defense goes south, there’s almost zero chance of a victory. The Bulldogs are among the worst offensive teams in the SEC and have trouble shooting from just about anywhere on the floor.

Mississippi State ranks 12th (out of 14) in the league in scoring offense (67.2 points per game), 13th in free throw shooting (65 percent), 11th in field goal shooting (44.1 percent) and dead last in 3-point shooting (29.9 percent).

Ray says Mississippi State can always control its defensive intensity, even when the team’s scoring is sporadic.

But when the shots aren’t falling, Mississippi State’s confidence wanes.

“We’re living through our offense,” Ray said. “We played defense really well at the beginning of the first half (against Georgia), and the reason we had success on offense was we got stops and ran out on transition. But our guys lost their energy.”

Mississippi State also needs its best players to improve.

Sword, a 6-foot-3 guard, is averaging a team-high 13 points per game, but is managing just 11.5 per game in league play on 36.1 percent shooting. The team’s best big man is Ware, but the 6-foot-9, 268-pounder is averaging just 9.5 points and 6.0 rebounds in the SEC.

Thomas, one of the team’s few threats from 3-point range, is making just 29.4 percent of his shots from behind the arc.

With just eight eligible scholarship players, improvement must come from within.

“Of course everybody’s down,” Cunningham said. “But we’ve got to find a way to stay together as a team if we want to finish strong.”


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