Maybe it happened kind of fast, but ahead of hosting it’s first conference home game of the season, Mississippi State women’s basketball is ranked No. 6 in the country. Vic Schaefer is only in his fourth year as the head coach, and most of his players have barely been around half as long as that.
But it doesn’t matter – they’re good. In fact, they’re pushing for great, sitting at 14-1 and suddenly among the nation’s elite, a ride that began when Schaefer was hired, continued in MSU’s NIT run two years ago and took another big step in advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2015.
MSU dominated the non-conference portion of their schedule this year, winning the Puerto Rico Classic, taking down a talented South Florida team in the AAC-SEC Challenge and seeing its only loss come in a low-scoring defensive battle on the road against one of the nation’s top teams in Texas.
“It helped us get ready for the SEC,” junior guard Dominique Dillingham said.
And entering SEC play, the Bulldogs appear to be among the best in the conference. They’re second in the league in scoring at 81.3 points per game, one of two teams in the 80s, and in fact they just beat the No. 1 scoring team (Florida) on the road Sunday. Defensively, despite the high volume of scoring, MSU is third in the SEC, only allowing opponents 52.5 points per game.
Sophomore star Victoria Vivians is second in the league in scoring at 17.9 points per game, and sophomore point guard Morgan William’s 78 total assists are also second in the conference.
Those two being sophomores underscores the challenge for Schaefer, as he’s coaching an extremely young team, obviously talented though they may be. The relative inexperience does worry him, he admits, but so far, it’s worked out just fine.
“That’s very difficult,” Schaefer said of the youth on the team. “I think if you ask any coach in this league, it doesn’t matter what sport, there’s a discipline that it takes to win in this league consistently, and you have to win play by play, possession by possession.”
Luckily, Schaefer has a few veterans like Dillingham to provide an example and leadership for the younger players. It only takes two or three players going hard in practice to elevate the habits and work ethic of others on the team, and he’s got those individuals, whether in the starting lineup or off the bench.
He sees it himself every day in practice, but Schaefer was particularly proud when others noticed it in games. Watching the television replay of MSU’s win at Florida, Schaefer heard the announcers praising 6’7” freshman forward Teaira McCowan not just for height, size or strength, but for diving on the floor after loose balls.
“That’s pretty impressive,” Schaefer said. “That speaks volumes to that kid and her selflessness and her willingness to help the team any way she can. And I think we’ve got a whole team full of that.”
It would have been easy for this team, he knows, to come into this season with a high ranking and high expectations and just rest on their past successes and enjoy the praise. He knew things would be different now that MSU has the target on their back, rather than his ladies being the underdogs in every game.
How his team handled the expectations, the people coming after them and the youth on the team was, and to a degree still is, a concern. At the moment, hoever, it appears he needn’t have worried.
“I’ve been proud of our team the last two ballgames in that we’ve been the team who came ready to play,” Schaefer said of the road wins at USF and UF. “I think our kids realize the level you have to play at to have some success, and I was extremely proud of how business-like our kids took these last two ballgames. Their approach was outstanding. Their preparation was good. Their work ethic, the focus, was really, really good.”
There is certainly a long way to go, and the road in the SEC is a tough one. The journey started on the road, and it comes back home tonight, MSU hosting Auburn in The Hump at 7:30. Schaefer is looking for more of the same thing that got his Bulldogs here to begin with.
“It’s our home opener,” he said. “I would hope like the dickens that we’re gonna be jacked up and ready to go.”