After losing four seniors, the NCAA Tournament team Vic Schaefer had in 2015 turned youthful and inexperienced in a hurry in 2016. A group dependent on a mass number of freshmen and sophomores, with only one senior on the roster at all, measuring up to the success of the previous year’s accomplishments was a tough task for the Mississippi State women’s basketball team.
But that’s what everyone predicted them to do, and then some, going into the season. The Bulldogs were picked to finish fourth in the gauntlet that is the SEC, tabbed a preseason top 15 team, despite all the losses and all the follies youth can bring.
Schaefer remembers wondering out loud, did all these prognosticators know what they were doing?
“I just didn’t think people realized the youth of our team,” he said.
But maybe Schaefer was the one not giving his club enough credit. Not only did they meet those expectations, MSU exceeded them, finishing tied for second in the conference and earning a double-bye in this weekend’s SEC Tournament.
With a 24-6 record (11-5 SEC), Schaefer proved as much to himself as anyone that he can win with youth, and just as importantly, that the youth he has is pretty talented.
“We’re younger and less experienced [than last year],” Schaefer said. “Sometimes that can be a good thing though. Our depth is very young so I’ve been very pleased with the progress of our young players … they’ve allowed us to substitute and keep some continuity through substitution.”
Of course, as young as the team may be, it isn’t lacking for star power. Sophomore Victoria Vivians was named first-team All-SEC, improving on her selection last year to second-team. The second leading scorer in the league, Vivians averaged 16.7 points per game despite, as Schaefer has pointed out, drawing every team’s best player each game.
“I think people know that for us to be successful, she’s got to score,” he said.
And score she has. On the other side of the floor, however, junior Dominique Dillingham was named to the All-SEC defensive team. Just as Vivians is always guarded by the other team’s best defender, so does Dillingham have to guard the other team’s best scorer night-in and night-out.
Then, another mark of the talented youth on the squad, 6’7” freshman forward Teaira McGowan was named to the SEC All-Freshman team, averaging 6.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. Her 172 rebounds led all freshmen in the SEC, and her 41 blocks were the eighth-best single-season performance in MSU history.
However, perhaps even more impressive than the statistics of the young Bulldogs has been their ability to stay steady and bounce back from losses. Only twice in conference play did MSU lose back-to-back games. The first time it happened, MSU won the next four games in a row. The second time it happened, State finished the regular season on an unbeaten streak, winning three-straight with an opportunity to add to that number this weekend at the SEC Tournament in Jacksonville, Florida.
“If we’ve had a setback, we’ve always bounced back. We’ve been a pretty resilient bunch,” Schaefer said. “I think that says a lot about the character of your team and a little bit about your moxie.”
All of that, and with only one senior on the roster.
“It’s really quite amazing,” Schaefer conceded. “This league is so tough … We’re the hunted now. We’ve got the bullseye on our back and our kids have to prepare a different way than we did two years ago.”
So far, they’ve prepared just fine.