The Ole Miss game? Not his idea.
“They already had this agreement,” new Southeast Missouri State coach Rick Ray said of this weekend’s home date with the Rebels. “We go back (to Oxford) next season in one of those 2-for-1s. And that was already done by the previous staff.”
And with that, Ray laughed.
“I thought I’d be done playing Ole Miss.”
Small school. Small world. In one of those funky coaching coincidences, fewer than 10 games into his first season with the Redhawks (0-8), Ray — rebuilding at SEMO after spending the previous three seasons at Mississippi State — draws Andy Kennedy. Again.
“I know if I was at Mississippi State, that’s one of those things that I would not have done,” Ray said of Saturday’s contest on ASN . “Kudos to Andy Kennedy for doing something that a lot of (coaches) would not do.”
After a winless couple of months, it’s the sort of something several coaches in Ray’s shoes might not want to do, either. Then again, when the Southeastern Conference makes a rare foray into the Show Me Center, why not embrace the stage?
“Obviously, you didn’t expect to be sitting here with zero wins (in early December),” Ray said. “I don’t think anybody had that expectation. But you did know that you were going to have your struggles in the beginning, because of the schedule and because of our inexperience. The one thing that we’ve got to continue to do, the one thing we’ve got to understand, is we need to lock in on getting better each and every day.”
November and December have proven to be a lesson in humility, to put it kindly. Ray’s squad has been outscored by an average margin of 19 points per contest, thanks partly to those challenging dates in the non-conference mix. SEMO opened with six of its first seven games on the road, and with four of its first nine tilts against squads ranked among stat guru Ken Pomeroy’s Top 70: Dayton (38th), Memphis (58th), Evansville (63rd) and Ole Miss (67th).
“I’ll tell you this: I knew when our schedule got completed, I thought it would be the most difficult schedule of anybody in the Ohio Valley Conference,” Ray said. “So you have that, first of all, and the second thing is just our lack of experience, just so many newcomers to your program. On top of that, the guys who are returning have gone from being role players to the top of the scouting report.”
And the learning curve continues: The Redhawks head into the weekend ranked 349th out of 351 Division I schools in terms of effective field-goal percentage (40.2); 349th on 3-point makes (23.9%); 298th in turnovers per game (14.9) and last — 351st — in free-throw percentage (53.5).
“I showed them the stats and I think this really (startled) them,” Ray recalled. “I said, ‘You guys think I’m trying to take (things) from your game. I’m trying to help us win.’
“So I think the hard realization is guys start taking steps to understand individually, and how they are as a team, and that we’ve got to grind it out as a team if we’re going to have a chance to win.”
They’ve tinkered with a bit more zone that Ray usually prefers, primarily out of necessity — SEMO ranks among the Top 75 nationally in three-point field-goal percentage defense (31.1, 73rd) and steals per game (7.8, 50th) — but the Rebels might prove to be their steepest defensive hill yet. Ole Miss guard Stefan Moody leads the SEC in points per game (23.0) and shots (131), while forward Sebastian Saiz ranks second in the circuit in rebounding average (9.6) and seventh in field-goal percentage (.554).
“We were doing something Tuesday at practice, where they guy guarding the player (pretending to be) Moody, he said, ‘Way out there?’ I said, ‘Yes, way out there,’” said Ray, who was 2-5 versus the Rebels during his run in Starkville. “He’s a guy who can make bad shots. He’s an explosive scorer. He’s got the utmost confidence in his game. Now Saiz is starting to mature to where he’s an offensive (threat). When you’ve got those two guys on the same side, you almost pick your poison.”
Even if those doses of humility get harder and harder to swallow. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Let alone Cape Girardeau.
“You know, you always have your outliers, whether it be good or bad,” Ray said. “But I think, for the most part, people understand that this is not going to be something that is going to be an overnight fix.”