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Breaking down Rick Ray’s coaching career

A deep dive into Colorado’s newest assistant coach.

NCAA BASKETBALL: MAR 01 Mississippi State at Missouri Photo by Timothy Tai/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Friday afternoon, the Colorado Buffaloes announced that Tad Boyle has hired Rick Ray as an assistant coach. Ray replaces Anthony Coleman, the star recruiter who left Colorado for Arizona State, this isn’t a one-for-one replacement. My colleague Jack Barsch previously wrote about the hiring, so this is a deeper dive into Ray’s coaching career to figure out his strengths and weaknesses.

Assistant Career (1997-2012)

Although born in Compton, California, Rick Ray’s ties belong to the Midwest. After playing NAIA basketball at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, Ray’s coaching career began with assistant jobs at Nebraska-Omaha, Indiana State and Northern Illinois. It was coaching in the Ohio Valley Conference where he bumped elbows with former Wichita State assistant Tad Boyle.

Coaching at Indiana State from 1997 to 2004, the Sycamores made to two NCAA Tournaments, but had three straight seasons with less than 10 wins. Ray moved on to Northern Illinois for two seasons between 2004 and 2006, where Rob Judson’s teams were average at best (Judson would be replaced by Ricardo Patton). Despite coaching for mediocre teams, Ray impressed with his leadership and intelligence to earn a promotion to the Purdue staff.

There in West Lafayette, Ray helped Matt Painter lead the Boilermakers to the NCAA Tournament all four years. With a big three featuring Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moor, Purdue was a legitimate national title contender. They twice reached the Sweet Sixteen, rose as high as #3 in the AP Poll in 2010, but their title hopes were ultimately derailed by Hummel’s torn ACL. Maybe it was a golden generation for Purdue, but Ray helped recruit and develop all three players.

In the 2010 offseason, Ray moved out of the Midwest for the first time in his career, taking a job on the Clemson Tigers coaching staff. There he helped first-year head coach Brad Brownell to the 2011 NCAA Tournament, although they were senior-led and dropped off the following season. (He did recruit K.J. McDaniels, one of my all-time favorite players.) Those Clemson teams were guard-led and low scoring, which is more of a feature than a bug for Ray’s career.

Mississippi State (2012-2015)

It’s impressive that Ray’s first head coaching job was at a power conference school, but it shouldn’t be sugarcoated: he was something of a failure at Mississippi State. Ray had to replace the school’s all-time winningest coach, Rick Stansbury, who posted 20+ wins in 10 of his 14 seasons there. Stansbury had a reputation as a dirty coach, so the school wanted to move on to someone better known for recruiting and developing high-character players.

In this culture reset, however, Ray did not have any foundation to build upon. Nearly every single player in Stansbury’s rotation left the program in the 2012 offseason. Star forward Arnett Moultrie left for the NBA, Dee Bost and Brian Bryant graduated, Rodney Hood transferred to Duke, and Deville Smith and Renardo Sidney left for other reasons. The players who returned to Starkville played a combined 26 games: Wendell Lewis played 8 games and was dismissed from the team, while Jalen Steele played 18 games before medically retiring, although he claims he was pushed out.

Playing a team of freshmen and first-year starters is not a recipe for success outside the one-and-done schools, so it should be no surprise Ray’s teams struggled in his first two seasons. By KenPom metrics, the Bulldogs rated as power conference bottom-feeders, but they did improve from 256th in the nation in 2012-13 to 205th and 159th the next two years. High-major programs don’t have much patience for gradual improvement, particularly when you’re not landing the kind of recruits your predecessor had.

So, three years after replacing a dirty coach with a clean coach, Mississippi State fired Rick Ray and hired Ben Howland. Yes, that Ben Howland, he of the disappointing UCLA teams and the infamous 2012 scandal in which Sports Illustrated reported he had lost control of a locker room characterized by fights, verbal abuse and substance abuse. Howland took over in Starkville, recruited top-100 recruits Malik Newman and Quinndary Weatherspoon, and saw productive years out of Ray’s senior starters. Howland’s next recruiting class featured five top-100 recruits, and soon enough the Bulldogs were back to where they were during Stansbury’s tenure.

It could be argued MSU wanted to reset the program after NCAA run-ins, have a fall guy do the hard work for a couple years, then resume the old ways after things calmed down.

Southeast Missouri State (2015-2020)

It is so hard to win at Southeast Missouri State. Since 2001, the Redhawks have had three winning seasons total, in which they had records of 15-14, 17-16 and 18-14. They made it to the 2000 NCAA Tournament, but have never attended any postseason tournament since. Southeast Missouri State isn’t even the best Southeast directional school, as they have been surpassed by Southeastern Louisiana.

Rick Ray walked into that job knowing that it would be a very long road to mediocrity. That didn’t happen, not even with a solid core of upperclassmen — solid by SEMO standards, anyway. Those Redhawks went 5-24 that first year, rated by KenPom as the 340th best team of the 351 in Division-I. Ray’s best season was 2016-17, when the Redhawks went 15-18 (9-7 in the OVC!) record and were 228th on KenPom.

From there, be it a lack of talent, a lack of development, the graduation of Antonius Cleveland (SEMO’s second NBA player), or whatever other reasons, they went back to rock bottom. Ray’s final season was just as bad as his first, as he went 7-24, 340th in KenPom, and was let go. But that doesn’t mean his time at SEMO was a failure, just because it’s impossible hard to win there.

Colorado (2020-)

Rick Ray won’t be the same kind of assistant as Anthony Coleman, and that’s fine. He doesn’t have to land any blue chip recruits to be considered a success, because he’s more keyed in on developing more under-the-radar players that explicitly fit Tad Boyle’s system. He has deep ties to the Midwest, so presumably the Buffs will be targeting Chicago and Indiana, plus he’s probably picked up a few connections across ACC and SEC country.

As far as basketball questions are concerned, it’s somewhat worrisome that he had woeful offenses at Mississippi State and Southeast Missouri State, but those were very difficult situations. I’m guessing Boyle wants to reinforce defensive fundamentals after collapsing in that respect at the end of 2020. It’s also unclear if Ray will work primarily with guards or big men, but I’m guessing Boyle will emphasize the develop of Keeshawn Barthelemy and Nique Clifford to continue the program’s forward momentum.

This might be a disappointing hire if you loved Coleman’s recruiting or you were hoping Danny Manning would be hired, but Rick Ray seems to have a great reputation as an assistant, particularly as someone who does the job the clean way.