- Associated Press - Friday, January 24, 2014

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) - It’s not even February and Mississippi State has already won three more games than it did last season.

The Bulldogs (13-5, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) are one of the biggest surprises so far during conference play, with a young roster that’s improving quickly under second-year coach Rick Ray.

Ray has stressed defense since his arrival at Mississippi State, but it’s a quickly improving offense that’s helped his team become more competitive.

Mississippi State has a difficult test on Saturday, when it makes the short trip to face rival Mississippi (13-5, 4-1).

The Bulldogs handed the Rebels their only conference loss on Jan. 11 in Starkville, but that was when Ole Miss didn’t have high-scoring guard Marshall Henderson, who has returned after a two-game suspension.

But for Mississippi State, there’s still plenty of optimism. That was in short supply last season, when the Bulldogs finished with a dismal 10-22 record, including a 4-14 mark in the SEC.

Mississippi State didn’t have much roster turnover in the offseason, so the majority of the team’s improvement has come within.

“That’s the key to our program,” Ray said. “Any time you get a young man in your program, the people around that young man want to say ‘Did my kid get better coming to Mississippi State University?’”

So far, the answer in most cases is yes.

Sophomore Craig Sword has emerged as an unorthodox leading scorer. The 6-foot-3 guard averages 14.5 points per game despite making just four 3-pointers all season. He’s shooting 52.4 percent from the field by relentlessly driving to the basket, finishing at the rim and drawing fouls.

It’s an approach that isn’t always pretty, but it’s usually effective. And that pretty much sums up the rest of these Bulldogs, who are shooting a league-worst 29.8 percent from 3-point range.

Fellow sophomore Gavin Ware - who is an imposing 6-foot-9 and 268 pounds - is averaging 11.1 points and 8.4 rebounds per game while shooting better than 60 percent from the field.

Colin Borchert gives the Bulldogs a little outside shooting, with a team-high 24 3-pointers this season. Roquez Johnson is an undersized forward who gets most of his points in transition or after offensive rebounds.

“I think our guys have bought in to who they are,” Ray said. “We’re not a good shooting team. We’re not a good 3-point shooting team. But that’s not the only way you score the basketball. If you attack the rim and attack the post then you’re still going to have a chance to score.”

Mississippi State’s inability to shoot is well-known throughout the SEC, so opposing defenses have almost always dropped back into a zone. Borchert took advantage in the Bulldogs’ 82-74 win over Auburn on Wednesday, making three 3-pointers in the first half.

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