Despite a bum left ankle, the freshman guard has set the pace in a pair of SEC season-opening victories. Sword put up 18 points including the game-clinching free throws as Mississippi State edged South Carolina; then followed that with a 16-point performance in Saturday’s 72-61 win at Georgia. When all was added up, the SEC saw fit to name Sword their Freshman of the Week.
“It means a lot,” Sword said today, after getting the news. Though, “I’ve got to love along from it to the next game. So I’m not worried about it.”
‘Worried’ might be stating concerns over Sword’s left ankle too strongly today. He hurt it early in the South Carolina game and literally limped through much of the evening. He also twice had to sit with cramps, yet managed to be on the court when it counted for both clutch points and a steal-and-score which likely sealed the success.
The day-after swelling took a toll and Sword did not practice at all for the Georgia trip, not until game warmups. All he did after getting the go-ahead was play 30 minutes, go 6-of-10 from the field and hit a pair of treys for the first time as a collegian.
“We had no indication how he’d be able to play or if he even would be able to play,” Coach Rick Ray said. “It’s a phenomenal thing for Craig to come in and fight like that and not just play but play well.”
“It was real tough,” admitted Sword of playing on the bad wheel. “Scottie (Johnson) put a lot of tape and an ankle brace on it. I couldn’t feel it!” Maybe not, but Sword had to be feeling something as he shot well, rebounded hard, defended harder, and just did what he does. However it is he does it.
It might just be that arrival of SEC season has brought out the best in Sword so far. In the two wins he is 12-of-21 shooting overall, and while by no means a regular outside gunner the rookie is showing a better selection sense about when to fire…and when to hold off.
“I’m starting to let the game come to me,” he said. Welllll…somewhat. This is ‘Chicken’ Sword after all and the nickname is peripherally true in some of his on-court aspects. Such as turnovers, of which Sword has ten in just two SEC outings against a pair of assists. For the season as a whole he has 58 turnovers and 24 assists, not exactly all-conference numbers.
“I’ll be going too fast sometimes and need to slow down!” Sword admits. Ray has advised using more jump-stop moves in some situations, or to pick his paint-approaches maybe more carefully. At the same time the coach can’t call off the aggression or Sword just wouldn’t be Sword. Nor as productive, with his 9.6 points and 3.2 rebounds rates show.
It is the same wild-eyed attacking style that produces the best part of his points after all. Besides, the aggression translates well to the defensive end where Sword is top-ten in SEC steals and disrupts a lot more series than show on a stat sheet.
In a sense Sword epitomizes how Mississippi State operates overall in this first season under Ray. “We’re just trying to play with speed, and mostly defend,” Sword said. “Our offense is based on motion so Coach says if we get wide-open shots it will start off good.”
Sword and State did start off well at Georgia, but they finished even better by out-scoring the host Bulldogs 36-26 in the second half. And as for open shots…a team that missed every three-point attempt in beating the Gamecocks was much warmer the next time. State went 9-of-20 at the arc, with four longballs by Jalen Steele and two more from guard Fred Thomas. The better outside accuracy more than offset the home team’s advantages in rebounding and free throws.
Sword credits the return of Steele in improving almost everything about the offense. “Now that we’ve got Jalen back its opening up things even more.” Meaning Sword, Thomas, and forward Rocquez Johnson are seeing a whole lot more one-on-one situations around the lane and not nearly as much defensive help. Opponents also tend to believe the stat sheet enough to still let rookies like Sword and Thomas take all the treys they want. Now that some, not enough but some, of their shots are dropping it ought only help State’s offense expand.
“It feels good to hit some shots,” Sword said. “We’ve been practicing on those and Coach always talks about hitting wide-open shots.” At the same time, this is not a squad about to become reliant on long-range scoring. The offense remains built around aggressive motion, attacking the goal, and just making something—often anything—happen. It’s worked twice in conference play, especially notes Ray in terms of getting Bulldogs to the free throw line. There Sword has been 72 times already, though his accuracy (53%) can stand a lot of improvement.
But those are things the Dogs do on their own, after practice or on the rare off-day. As a team? “Really, all we work on is defense,” Sword said. “We don’t worry about offense, Coach preaches defense.”
Mississippi State (7-7, 2-0 SEC) faces a stiffer defensive test this week. Alabama (9-6, 1-1 SEC) bounced back from a tough loss at Missouri to knock off Tennessee. There isn’t any JaMychal Green or Tony Mitchell on this Crimson Tide team, which shows in the rebounding column. There are enough other familiar faces though in Trevor Releford (16.3ppg) and Trevor Lacey (12.5), with 58 made treys between them. Sword may be a college rookie but he played both in summer ball before. He’s also familiar with Mississippian Devonta Pollard who has stepped right into the paint for Alabama.
By the same token this Bulldog bunch is operating more efficiently, and successfully, after a lot of pre-SEC sputtering around injuries and such setbacks. Saturday’s victory at Athens was a real reward too, Sword said, as it provided proof they can win away from home court.
“Once we start playing together and feeling each other, we know we’re going to get some wins.” And who knows, maybe even some more SEC recognitions with it? Freshman of the Week is well and good, agreed Sword, but… “I’m not going to be complacent about it.”