7-0, undefeated, preseason WNIT Champs, SEC Player of the Week honors (plural), No. 23 in the country and 92.5 points per game dating back to exhibition play less than one month ago. Yet, …
“We’re not satisfied at all,” Mississippi State guard Kayla Nevitt told reporters. “We’re grateful that we’re No. 23, but we’re striving for more, for better.”
Not to call anybody out, she says, but her basketball team ought to be ranked higher, in her opinion. But she understands. They’re a young team. While the senior stars have been sitting out from injury, it’s a slew of sophomores and freshmen who have led the way to the hot start.
“I think because we’re young, they think maybe we’re not ready,” she said. “They just need more, and that’s what we’re going to give them.”
More is on the way, as it turns out. Star forward and former SEC Defensive Player of the Year Martha Alwal has been waiting on the bench as she recovers from a preseason back procedure. She’s finally getting back onto the court, but she’s far from 100 percent just yet. But once she’s there, of course, she’s one of the best players in the country, joining one of the best groups of young talent in the SEC.
While Alwal will make those around her better (her defense leading to fast-break points and her offense opening up the floor for everyone else) it’s the senior forward herself who may have the most to gain as she returns.
A little over two years ago when head coach Vic Schaefer arrived in Starkville, he made a promise to then rising sophomore Alwal. He was going to get talent for her to play around.
Now, led by stud freshman Victoria Vivians, he’s come through for Alwal.
“Now it’s time for her to hold up her end of the deal,” Schaefer said with a smile.
And thanks to that talent, she ought to be able to.
“Martha’s game will get a whole lot better,” Schaefer continued. “You’re not gonna be able to double Martha when you’ve got players at every position who can beat you.”
Alongside her, senior guard Kendra Grant is finally ready to return from injury, an offensive and defensive threat who started her first three years on campus. Yet another senior stalwart, Savannah Carter, is waiting for her return from injury.
As Nevitt said, as good as this team has been, it’s only getting better and deeper as the season gets tougher.
Half serious and half joking, Schaefer said the hardest part of his job may be getting all the talent he’s accumulated onto the floor and in a rotation.
“It’s a challenge for me, to be honest with you,” he said.
Good problem to have, of course, and one that will serve Schaefer well when SEC play starts and his Bulldogs face Top 10 teams on a near weekly basis.
As his team moves forward and veterans return, players are taking cues from elsewhere on campus. Vivians, a Mississippi native, has been watching as MSU’s football team vaulted to the top of the polls. A team, like hers, which began the season unranked and had to work harder than most to earn respect.
“That’s just how it is in Mississippi,” she said. “They don’t realize what we have and what we’re trying to do. Like our football team did, we’re going to try to do the same. I think they need to realize that we have a lot of talent.”
The goal for the hardwood version of the Bulldogs will be, as Nevitt explained, to stay at the top once they get there.
Schaefer didn’t go quite as far as his players, but his thoughts are similar. Looking at the polls, he says the teams in the 15-25 range are typically very fluid, moving in and out with regularity. Teams 1-15, however, he says tend to be constant. The order changes, but the names hold relatively steady. The first goal for him is to stay steady in the top 25 and not fall out as so many others do. The next, naturally, is to crack that upper echelon.
“There’s nothing but great vibes going on at Mississippi State right now and I think it’s a great indication of the commitment here at MSU by our administration to our athletic department and to our programs,” he said. “I feel an obligation to [athletic director] Scott Stricklin and to our administration to live up to those investments.”
The hope is that he’s got a team capable of doing just that.
“When we’re humming, we’re good,” Schaefer said. “But I don’t think we’ve played our best or close to our best.
“It’s not where you start. It’s where you end.”