Teetering on the line between hosting and traveling in the NCAA Tournament according to projections, the questions to Vic Schaefer this week about his team made sense. What do you need to do in the SEC Tournament this weekend to make sure you’re a top-four seed? What must be done to prove your team deserves to be a host?
“I don’t think we need to prove anything,” Schaefer answered. He shrugged his shoulders, held his hands up and offered half a smile, saying, “I just don’t think we have to do anything else.”
In fact, MSU’s women’s basketball coach said, he thinks any wins at the SEC Tourney this weekend will just serve to make his Bulldogs an even higher seed in the NCAA Tournament. Schaefer might be biased, but he’s got some credence to his arguments.
Mississippi State finished third in the dominant Southeastern Conference, behind only powerhouses South Carolina (No. 2 in the country) and Tennessee (No. 6). The Bulldogs are 26-5, ranked No. 11 in the country and have left a path of methodic domination along the way. Records in wins, scoring, attendance and the like have been set on a seemingly weekly basis.
“How are you gonna have the third place team in the SEC, and not be a top-four seed? That’s crazy,” Schaefer told reporters. “It’s impossible.”
Just this week, Schaefer was named SEC Co-Coach of the Year, while three of his players accounted for four spots on All-SEC teams.
And the kicker?
“We still haven’t played our best basketball. We’re still not playing great,” he said. “If we can get it going and get it together, I like our chances.”
If what he’s done to this point is “not great,” then the postseason ought to be a fair bit of fun for MSU. Even without playing what is necessarily their best basketball, this team has advanced quickly from the start of the season, helped by senior Martha Alwal returning to form after injuries slowed her early on. The development of Victoria Vivians, the freshman All-SEC guard, as she’s gone from talented to talented and intelligent on the court, has been a catalyst all season.
It’s a process that began nearly three years ago when Schaefer took over at MSU, though he concedes even he wasn’t quite sure things would happen this fast. In the course of one year, it looks like his Bulldogs will go from hosting the WNIT in 2014 to hosting the NCAA Tournament in 2015. Quite the rapid ascension.
“It’s hard to really put your arms around,” Schaefer said when asked if he’d had a chance to look back the incredible regular season. “I believed this day would be here when I took the job. I’m not sure we thought it would be here this quickly … It’s pretty special.”
Of course, as he later said, he doesn’t quite have the time to process it right now. Perhaps, he mused, he’ll have a day this summer when he’s sitting on the bay with a fishing rod in hand and he can really sit back and appreciate what’s happened. But until then, it hasn’t fully sunk in.
For the senior Alwal, it’s been a similarly difficult and rewarding journey, and one that wasn’t always easy under Schaefer’s hard-nosed guidance.
“You worked really hard and the wins were never there,” she said of her first few years on campus. “It was like, why are we doing this? Now the wins are here … I’m so proud of him. He’s turned this program around completely and he’s finally getting recognition for that.”
As all involved parties made sure to point out, though, where they are now isn’t the intended end of the road. They’ve not yet achieved everything they want, not even close. They want championships. They want to make a run in the postseason. They want to go from up-and-comers to respected stalwarts in college basketball.
More than anything right now, they want to win games this weekend in the SEC Tournament, then they want to host games in the NCAA Tournament.
It was a touch symbolic that Schaefer turned 54 on Monday, the day after MSU’s last game of the regular season. It was the start of a new year for him and a new season for his team.
Moments after the final buzzer following the win over Ole Miss to close out the season, Schaefer opened his press conference the same way he typically finishes it.
“Praise the Lord and go Dawgs.”