Vic Schaefer had a lot of things to talk about after his team lost in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament Friday night. A thumb injury to his star freshman Victoria Vivians was certainly worthy of discussion. The big game by his senior Martha Alwal could have been a happier subject. The scoring drought late in the second half that led to the loss and the scoring burst by an injured Kentucky player that compounded the problem are two of the less enjoyable but still timely topics.
From here, though, the biggest one was not about the immediate past, but about the not-so-distant future. Namely, the NCAA Tournament. Mississippi State is in, for sure. But the question Schaefer and every other Maroon-clad person in Little Rock were asking: will MSU get to host?
The 1-4 seeds in the Tourney will be hosting this year, and Schaefer thought going into this weekend that his Bulldogs had already locked up a top-four seed, and thus, the chance to host. In fact, he told reporters earlier this week he thought winning in the quarterfinals would launch his team up to a three-seed.
The seeding is important for many reasons, including the level of competition faced throughout, but Schaefer’s concern is a bit more personal.
Three years ago when he took over, Schaefer promised Alwal that if she bought in, he’d get her to the NCAA Tournament before she graduated. In her senior year, Alwal is about to see that promised fulfilled.
Now, while he never made such a promise to this group, Schaefer is determined to deliver a similar prize to the MSU fans who turned out to support his team all year. He wants to host, and more than anything, he wants to do it for them. After Friday’s game, Schaefer’s greatest lament wasn’t missed shots or bad screens or anything like that.
“The Bulldogs traveled tonight,” he said. “We had so many people in the stands. I’m so disheartened and disappointed for them.”
This was in the middle of his opening comments, before any question had been asked. Schaefer knew it seemed like an odd thing to focus on, but he wanted the reporters in the room to understand.
“For those of you who don’t follow us or don’t know,” he continued, “we have been drawing fans at a tremendous rate. 7,300 on Sunday and averaged almost five thousand fans a game in conference … So proud of my fans for providing a great atmosphere.”
He’s right to brag, though. MSU has set multiple attendance records this season, and the interest has gone far beyond the walls of Humphrey Coliseum. Restaurants across Starkville had patrons glued to the TV the last time MSU played Kentucky, a double-overtime affair in Lexington just a couple weeks ago.
Perhaps the greatest sign that this team had arrived and was relevant was the upset reaction from MSU fans online after Friday night’s game. It was near 11 o’clock on a Friday night and Twitter, Facebook and message boards were buzzing with the results of the game, some fans upset and bemoaning the shortcomings, others equally upset but assuring themselves it would be alright.
In a weird way, the complaints were a really good sign for Schaefer’s club. You don’t get those unless people care, unless they’ve become emotionally invested in the outcome. After all, this was just the SEC Tournament. A win would’ve helped MSU with seeding, but it was an otherwise superfluous event. The fact people were so upset by it showed that the results mean something to them.
Schaefer has seen the interest spike, and the support has had an impact and helped his teams win games they weren’t able to a year or two ago. He thinks that support could turn into something MSU has never seen before.
“I’m telling you,” he told reporters Friday, “if we could host, I really believe there wouldn’t be an empty seat. I just feel like we sell it out … Our fans are so infatuated and in love with our players, and rightfully so. Our kids play their hearts out.”
However, setting aside emotion and ticket sales, the more direct conversation will remain for the selection committee. It’s up to them if MSU hosts, though Schaefer thinks he’s got a good case there, too.
They’re 26-5 overall, 11-5 in the conference, and as the head coach pointed out, “we’re two free throws from being 13-3 in the league.”
Even without those free throws, MSU finished in sole possession for third place in the nation’s toughest conference.
“I think that warrants a top-four seed,” Schaefer shared.
He also made the point that, while his RPI is in the twenties, two groups of educated voters across the country – the AP and Coaches poll voters – have consistently kept MSU in the top 16 the majority of the year.
“I know they don’t look at that,” Schaefer said of the selection committee’s process, “but somebody needs to. Those aren’t two groups of idiots voting.”
The selection show is March 16, and while Schaefer will be happy to make the tournament either way, he’s certainly hoping to reward the home crowd. Whatever happens, he’s sure of at least two things when it comes to the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re going to get there,” Schaefer said. “It’s going to be a great run.”