This is the best team Vic Schaefer has had at Mississippi State, and sitting at 15-0 after blowing out 11-3 LSU to start SEC play, this might also be the best coaching job of his five years in Starkville. His Bulldogs are No. 5 in the country, and that ranking may very well get even better when the new polls come out this week.
What’s impressive about the job he’s done to this point – beyond the tough non-conference slate, the big numbers and, you know, the undefeated record – is that he’s done so with virtually the same roster he had last year. Coming into the season, fresh off an appearance in the Sweet Sixteen, the 2016-17 campaign set up to be far more about development than addition.
After several years of addition by, well, addition, the stars of this year’s team are the same stars of last year’s team. The only difference is that they’re 12 months older. It’s in those 12 months that Schaefer did his work, and he continues to do so as the train of this season gains more and more steam.
The obvious answer to “What makes MSU good?” is the talent. All-SEC players like Victoria Vivians, Morgan William and Dominique Dillingham are certainly vital. Having 6’7” Teaira McCowan and 6’5” Chinwe Okorie in the post goes a long way, too. Literally.
But the little things are what have moved the needle from good to great for this top-five squad. Development is in the little things. Okorie and Vivians, who combined for 41 points and 18 rebounds against LSU Sunday, are perfect examples. Both have natural talents and abilities, certainly, but honing those skills has been of immense value.
Okorie, now a senior, has always been one of the most physically intimidating players on MSU’s roster, and while she’s certainly had a successful career, her ceiling was never quite reached earlier in her time at State.
“I have to answer when I’m on the Bulldog tour, ‘Hey, how’s your big girl? Is she gonna be able to make a layup this year?’ Schaefer shared, only half-jokingly.
Now, it turns out, she can. Okorie, who also leads the team in rebounds, is shooting over 60 percent from the field and is one of only three players on the team averaging double-figures scoring. Beside her in the post, McCowan has made strides from freshman year to sophomore, learning how to use her body on both ends of the floor.
The development in the frontcourt has made for a nice pairing with the junior point guard William, the team’s floor general and second-leading scorer.
“Those are the bookends to our success,” Schaefer said. “The development of our bigs inside really makes it nice for our guard play, no question about it.”
For Vivians, the big step has been growing into her abilities. She’s athletic, she can shoot and she’s got length. That much got her pretty far. But now, she’s perfecting the finer points of the game.
She’s learned how to properly select and get set for shots.
“With Tori, it’s just a matter of her feet,” Schaefer said. “Tori didn’t take a bad shot today. She was on balance.”
She’s learned to see the floor on things as seemingly little as an in-bounds pass.
“We worked on that for 10 minutes in shootaround,” Schaefer shared.
She’s setting strong screens, she’s perfecting her timing on when to make cuts, and most importantly – this is the big one – she’s become passionate on defense.
“You can tell on the defensive end, it means something to her,” Schaefer finished. “I think that’s the difference on our team right now, that she’s really dialed in on both ends.“
Vivians is second on the team in steals (24), first in rebounds by guards (4.2 per game) and third in assists with a total 24. On that offensive side, Vivians’s 217 shots are more than double the next closest on the team, and only one other player (Okorie) has even attempted 100. Impressively given the volume of attempts, Vivians is shooting 43.3 percent, averaging 16.7 points per game.
Each game is just another display of her developed talents. Against LSU, for example, Vivians totaled 24 points, 12 rebounds and three steals as she led her team to a blowout 74-48 victory.
“That’s how an All-American is supposed to play,” Schaefer said with a smile afterward.
The final piece to MSU’s success has been, to make it simple, everybody else on the team not already mentioned. It’s been Roshunda Johnson, who stepped up in the place of the injured Dillingham for a stretch in December and is now the team’s fourth-leading scorer.
It’s backup point guard Jazzmun Holmes having just two fewer assists (57) than the starter (59, William), despite playing roughly half as many minutes. It’s Blair Schaefer playing some of the toughest minutes on the team. It’s Breanna Richardson’s wily veteran ways in the post.
In short, it’s a full roster of talent, not just a top-heavy group dependent on its stars.
“We’re one of the few teams in the country that has depth right now, knock on wood,” Schaefer said. “That’s really shone in our streak right now.”
There’s more to it than all that, of course. But as Schaefer’s club continues its climb to the top of ladder in college basketball, his coaching job, and that of his staff, cannot be emphasized enough.