- Associated Press - Friday, March 14, 2014

Mississippi State hopes a surprisingly competitive run in the Southeastern Conference tournament can lead to better things to next season.

As it relates to the league standings, the only direction to go is up.

The Bulldogs finished their season with a 14-19 record (3-15 SEC) after losing to Mississippi 78-66 on Thursday in the second round of the SEC tournament. Mississippi State snapped a 13-game losing streak the night before, beating Vanderbilt 82-68 in the opening round.

MSU coach Rick Ray has had a rough run during two seasons, with a 24-41 record, including a 9-31 mark against league competition.

The Bulldogs finished last in the SEC this season, but Ray hopes a maturing nucleus of Fred Thomas, Gavin Ware and Craig Sword will lead to better results next season.

“Now what we have to do, though, is we’ve got to make sure that we move forward from here and take this positive experience that we had in the SEC tournament and turn it into a positive experience the next season,” Ray said. “I think we’re fully capable of doing that.”

Sword has been the team’s best player over the past two seasons, leading the team with 13.2 points per game and shooting 48.5 percent from the field. Ware has provided a capable presence inside on most nights, averaging 10 points and 7.2 rebounds.

But it’s the rapid improvement of Thomas that is the biggest recent development. The 6-foot-5 guard averaged more than 15 points over the team’s final six games, shooting nearly 55 percent from the field over that stretch.

“When I just bring it every night, I see what type of player I can be,” Thomas said. “I’m just going to continue to do that and let it carry on to the next season.”

Ray says Thomas is already the team’s best perimeter defender and often draws the toughest assignments on that end of the floor.

“There’s no question that Fred Thomas is playing the best basketball that he’s played here in these past four to five games,” Ray said. “And I tell you what, I give Fred Thomas a ton of credit, because I didn’t play him at all one game, and Fred could have dropped his head and just really went south from there. But he took that as motivation and shows what type of person he is. He moved forward from there.”

But Thomas, Sword and Ware are going to need some help. Ray feels it’s on the way.

The Bulldogs lose two seniors - Colin Borchert and Tyson Cunningham - but should gain at least five players next season. Mississippi State played most of this season with just eight scholarship players.

The lack of depth was readily apparent in the Bulldogs’ final game. Mississippi State had a 51-38 lead over Ole Miss early in the second half before the Rebels blew past the exhausted Bulldogs with a 40-15 run to end the game.

Ray said despite all the adversity, he’s been pleased with the team’s attitude. He said Wednesday’s victory over Vanderbilt was proof his players were still engaged and trying to improve.

“Just the fact that our guys had the fortitude to stick with it and continue to compete, I think it bodes well for our future,” Ray said.


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

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