Vic Schaefer is in a unique situation as the basketball season begins today – unique for his time as Mississippi State’s head coach, anyway. He’s got, by most any measure, the best and most experienced team of his tenure with the Bulldogs, featuring four seniors and four juniors and a handful of players who have earned various All-SEC honors.
And that luxury creates his greatest challenge. The same young women who led MSU to the Sweet Sixteen last year, the ones who were behind the best season in school history, are the same ones Schaefer is depending on to out-perform themselves. When he arrived in Starkville, there was nowhere to go but up as year-by-year he added talent in droves and depended on young players to compete beyond their years.
Now, with MSU picked No. 2 in the SEC and considered one of the top programs in the country, Schaefer and his players alike know how easy it would be to slip and how equally difficult it will be to climb the last rung of that ladder.
“We can go down or we can go up,” senior guard Dominique Dillingham said. “It’s like Coach Schaefer says – we only have one spot to go up, but we have a lot of room to go down. We have a lot of people coming back, so it’s up to us if we’re going to do better than last year. In order for us to do better than last year, we’re going to have to do more than what we did.”
It was one of the hardest moments of Schaefer’s career, but MSU’s loss to UCONN in the Sweet Sixteen has proved to at least have a silver lining in the strong motivation it offers. Both because of the sting of that loss and because of the knowledge that individual and team development is the only way they can improve, MSU’s players spent their full offseason doing everything they could to get better.
They broke down their own film, pinpointed any weaknesses or struggles and dedicated the summer to fixing them. Dillingham put up hundreds of shots every day in an effort to better her field goal percentage. Players worked on help defense, blocking out, ball handling, the works. Whatever was needed, they dedicated the time to fixing it.
Senior forward Breanna Richardson had the question of improvement posed to her shortly before the season began. How does a team full of the same people get better than it was a year ago?
“Just get in the gym,” she said. “I know it’s simple, but just get in the gym, work on your weaknesses and they become strengths before you know it.”
For Schaefer, however, the ability of his team to improve is contingent on more than just skills development. His biggest concern and his greatest hope are the same – team development.
“Talent doesn’t win alone,” he explained. “The chemistry piece, the leadership piece is where our next step needs to be. We’re certainly a very talented basketball team, but that’s not enough to win.”
That’s where players like Dillingham and Richardson and the other veterans become important, particularly junior point guard Morgan William. Finally back to full health, William has quickly found herself as one of the most experienced players on the team, and with her position, she’s one of the first to be looked to for leadership and guidance.
Vocal leadership isn’t necessarily a natural trait for William, but it’s something the point guard has worked on in the offseason. She’s started to talk more, taken on the role of being a leader. Specifically, she’s taken on the responsibility of calling plays while bringing the ball up the floor, making an effort to call out the sets earlier and earlier in the play clock as she gains the experience.
“I’ve gotta be a coach on the floor,” she said.
2016-17 will be the most talented and experienced team Schaefer has had at MSU. They aren’t where he wants them to be just yet, and Schaefer knows surpassing their previous highs will be a great challenge, but there remains an emphasis on the great part of things.
After all, this exactly where Schaefer wanted to be.