Today, the NCAA Tournament begins for Mississippi State women’s basketball. The Bulldogs face Tulane at 2:30 eastern time, though both schools hail from the central time zone.
“We probably could’ve saved a lot of money and a lot of gas and met halfway and played this weekend,” MSU head coach Vic Schaefer joked.
If he seems a little comfortable with the opponent, it’s because he sort of is. After all, it was around this time last year the Bulldogs and Green Wave were having these same conversations and making these same preparations before playing each other in the WNIT. In fact, this will be the fourth time in Schaefer’s three seasons at MSU that he’s played Tulane, having hosted them for closed scrimmages before the first two seasons.
Senior forward Martha Alwal has been there every time for State.
“I think it gives us a little bit of an advantage,” she said, “because we know some of what they do. We know some of their plays. I think we have a good idea what they’re about.”
Added sophomore guard Dominique Dillingham, “We know who we need to stop. We know what their sets are already. We just need to play defense.”
The process of gaining that familiarity has also been a sort of incidental measuring stick for MSU, as its performances against Tulane have been a good indicator of where the Bulldogs are as a team.
In Schaefer’s first year, for instance, Tulane dominated MSU in a closed scrimmage. In fact, it was so bad that Schaefer said he apologized to Tulane’s head coach knowing that they had wasted their time by playing his team.
“It was absolutely one of the most embarrassing days of my life in coaching,” he said. “Thank goodness the doors were closed.”
One year later and one year more experienced, they scrimmaged again. The Green Wave won round two, as well, but by a much closer margin and in much more competitive fashion. It was a sign that Schaefer’s team had improved.
Then when they met in public for the first time at the end of last season, Schaefer was able to see improvement not just from year-to-year, but within that individual season. The Bulldogs got a 77-68 win in the first round of the WNIT, starting their run to the quarterfinals of the tournament.
Now, MSU has a chance to do the same thing. If they can beat Tulane in the first round, they can start a run. Plus, they could even the series up under Schaefer. And it’s experiences like those that MSU plans to draw from this weekend.
On a young team reliant on several freshmen, experienced players like Dillingham and Alwal will be the leaders who have played in the lose-and-go-home situations. Their final game last year was a two-point loss to South Florida in the fourth round of the WNIT, and it’s one Alwal doesn’t seem likely to ever forget.
Asked what she tells young players about the postseason, her answer came quick.
“You can’t take even one play off,” Alwal said, referencing that game they lost by one possession. “I think we’ve learned from that. You can’t take anything for granted.”
Looking at the specifics of today’s game, it’s a matchup of two fairly different teams, with Tulane being veteran-laden and MSU going heavy on the freshmen and sophomores. As Schaefer pointed out, many of the same players who embarrassed his team that first scrimmage are going to be on the court today.
But the similarity for the two teams is that both are led by a star freshman. For MSU, it’s Victoria Vivians, the SEC’s leading scorer and the winner of the Gillom Trophy for best collegiate player in the state of Mississippi.
For Tulane, it’s the freshman guard from New Orleans, Kolby Morgan. She leads the Green Wave in scoring and is the only member of the team averaging double-digits. She’s tops on the team in free throws and steals, while she’s second on the squad in rebounds, despite being a 5’8” guard.
The rest of the Green Wave, for the most part, Schaefer and his players are quite familiar with. Just as Tulane is familiar with the veterans on State’s squad, while wholly inexperienced with Vivians and the rest of her stud class of freshmen.
In a game between teams who have been playing regularly, it’s likely the new faces to the game will be the ones who decide the outcome.
But while Tulane knows MSU, it’s every other basketball fan in the country the Bulldogs will have an opportunity to make an impression on as March Madness begins.
“This tournament is huge for us,” Alwal said, “because everyone else is going to get a glimpse of what our team is like and what it’s about.”