STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Coach Rick Ray's first season at Mississippi State keeps getting worse.
Not only are the Bulldogs mired in a 10-game losing streak that's lasted more than a month, but Ray suspended sophomore forward Roquez Johnson indefinitely on Monday for breaking team rules. That leaves just five scholarship players and two walk-ons remaining as Mississippi State (7-17, 2-10 Southeastern Conference) prepares to face Alabama (17-8, 9-3) on Wednesday.
It's the latest setback in a season full of suspensions, injuries and just plain bad basketball. The Bulldogs have seven games remaining, and if they lose them all, they'll be the first team since the SEC started in the 1930s to lose 24 games in a season.
That's not the kind of record-setting Ray had in mind when he took the Mississippi State job last spring. But he's made it clear he has certain rules on and off the court — and he's not willing to budge just because it could cause a few more losses.
"I think it is guys trying to get used to my expectations for them off the court," Ray said. "We all know what the expectations are on the court but it's them trying to figure out what they can get away with ... The answer is — nothing."
Johnson's suspension comes barely a week after junior guard Jalen Steele was suspended — also for breaking team rules. Ray hasn't ruled out Steele's return for the Alabama game, but the coach is fully prepared to go to Tuscaloosa with just seven players available, including three freshmen.
The lack of experience and depth, even before the suspensions of Johnson and Steele, has crippled the Bulldogs. Ray dismissed guard Shaun Smith and forward Kristers Zeidaks before the season started because of breaking team rules and then season-ending injuries to Andre Applewhite and Jacoby Davis further depleted the roster.
And that was before the season even started.
Mississippi State's 10 straight losses have come by an average of 21.2 points per game. The Bulldogs are among the worst teams in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio and are shooting barely 40 percent from the field, including just 27.8 percent from 3-point range.
But Ray says one of Mississippi State's biggest issues isn't a lack of talent. It's a lack of leadership that isn't going to come any time soon.
"It's too much to ask incoming guys like Colin Borchert, Trivante Bloodman and the freshmen to provide that leadership," Ray said. "We don't have that."
But the games keep coming regardless. The low point of the season so far might have been last week's 78-36 home loss to Missouri. Afterwards, freshman Gavin Ware said the coaches reminded the team there were several games left "whether we like it or not."
Ware has been one of the bright spots this season. The 6-foot-9, 270-pound forward has flashed potential in the post, with good footwork and skill around the basket.
Fellow freshmen Craig Sword and Fred Thomas are the team's two leading scorers so far this season. The two guards make the usual freshmen mistakes, but are undeniably athletic and talented. Sword is averaging a team-high 11.9 points in SEC play.
Now it is Ray's job is to keep that nucleus together. For a program that's used to being in the upper tier of the SEC and consistently getting to the NCAA tournament, this year's freefall has been difficult to swallow. Humphrey Coliseum has been less than half full for recent games and players are understandably frustrated.
But Ray said there has been no talk of players transferring.
"That hasn't come up at all yet," Ray said. "I don't expect it to come up. My expectations are those guys want to be a part of the program. If they don't want to be a part of the program, they haven't said that to me. That's never been up for discussion."
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP