- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Mississippi State coach Rick Ray’s plan to build a winning basketball program has always started with developing an elite defense.

Three years into his tenure, the Bulldogs are pretty good at that part of the game. The problem is the offense has been so bad it hasn’t mattered.

Mississippi State (8-9, 1-3 Southeastern Conference) has a brutal 8-32 regular-season record in the SEC during Ray’s tenure and - at least statistically - the main reason is an offense that has been nothing more than mediocre and sometimes downright awful.

The Bulldogs are struggling again this season, ranking last in the SEC in scoring offense (60.1 points per game), 3-point field goal percentage (28.3 percent), assists (8.0 per game) and turnover margin (minus-2.1 per game).

But over the past week there have been signs of hope after solid back-to-back offensive performances that resulted in a competitive 74-70 road loss to Texas A&M; and a 57-54 victory over Vanderbilt.

The comeback victory over the Commodores ended a 16-game regular-season losing streak in conference play.

“When we share the ball and we move the ball and play as a team we can pretty much play with anybody and win games,” Mississippi State guard I.J. Ready said after Saturday’s victory.

Now Mississippi State will try to break its 22-game road losing, including 19 straight in the SEC, when it travels to face Auburn (10-7, 2-2) on Wednesday. The Tigers are coming off a victory over South Carolina on Saturday.

Ray said that if Mississippi State is going to continue its improved play, then it must be patient on the offensive end.

After three straight seasons of offensive struggles - especially when it relates to outside shooting - the scouting report for stopping the Bulldogs has become fairly simple: Back off and dare them to shoot.

Ray is well aware of the trend.

“Teams sag off on us and then we don’t have the patience to continue to probe the defense and move the basketball,” Ray said.

Ready provided the Bulldogs an offensive lift during the victory over Vanderbilt, leading the team with 11 points, including a vital 3-pointer in the final minute.

The sophomore is generously listed on the roster as 5-foot-11, but Ray says he has the ability to become a vital part of the offense despite his small stature.

“I.J. has got to be comfortable with his role,” Ray said. “I.J. is a young man who wants to be a consummate point guard, wants to have a high assist-to-turnover ratio and find the open man, but for our team at this point we need him to be aggressive out there and making plays.”

Ray and Ready said the Vanderbilt game provides a blueprint for how the Bulldogs can be successful in the future. Mississippi State had six players who scored at least six points, controlled the glass with a 41-28 rebounding edge and made more free throws (20) than Vanderbilt even attempted (17).

That helped offset a relatively low shooting percentage (38.6 percent) and 17 turnovers.

“We’ve got to make sure we’re sharing the basketball, probing the defense and not settling for a contested 3,” Ray said. “And I think when we do that our shooting percentage goes way up.”

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

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