For nearly 25 years, Gary Blair has, likely unbeknownst to himself, helped raise the next generation of great college women’s basketball coaches. Now the head coach at Texas A&M, Blair has seen two of his former assistants and pupils at Arkansas blossom and grow into their own successful careers. Today, those two meet when Mississippi State plays the University of Washington in the Sweet Sixteen.
However, despite their time under the same man, Vic Schaefer and Mike Neighbors couldn’t present two more contrasting styles of basketball, and tonight’s game will be quite the clash in approaches for the men who have remained friends throughout their careers.
On the side of Neighbors and the Huskies, the headlines read big and impressive. Senior guard Kelsey Plum isn’t just her team’s leading scorer, isn’t just best in the Pac-12, and in fact she isn’t even No. 1 for just this entire year. Plum is the all-time leading scorer in NCAA history, having passed Jackie Stiles late this season. Plum is averaging 31.7 points per game this year, including a career-high 57 points against Utah, and as most would guess, the UW offense runs through her.
Schaefer, a native of Houston, Texas, has easily been able to find a comparison in his hometown Houston Rockets, who have a style of play built around the talents of NBA All-Star James Harden.
“They run a lot of stuff that the Rockets run,” Schaefer said. “Everything runs off of Kelsey.”
And, oddly enough, Schaefer actually coached against former record holder Stiles three times while he was an assistant at Arkansas. He knows the difficulty of facing such a game-changing scorer. MSU senior guard Dominique Dillingham, State’s best defender, summed up the challenge pretty easily.
“She’s really versatile,” Dillingham said of Plum. “She can spot up shoot. She can go off dribble. She can go to the rim. And she loves to get the ball to her teammates.”
Of course, as Schaefer has pointed out, Plum isn’t all the Huskies have, and in fact, while Plum leads the nation in scoring, it’s her teammate Chantel Osahor who leads the country in rebounding, averaging 15.3 per game. She even had one outing where she grabbed 30 boards, and she’s tops in the country with 29 double-doubles this year.
“The whole group is good,” Schaefer said. “The whole team is good. I think they’re a tremendous basketball team. Their supporting cast, they know their roles and they execute it very well.”
It’s because of the talent around her that UW is in the Sweet Sixteen, but Plum is very much the focal point of the offense, whether she’s scoring, assisting or just distracting.
Meanwhile, MSU has reached this portion of the postseason with a completely different style, both on offense and defense. The Bulldogs have developed a team approach, not in the sense that they play as a good team – though that’s true, too – but that, whatever the situation, someone on the team is going to come through. The trouble for opposing coaches is that you never really know who it’s going to be.
Sure, junior guard Victoria Vivians leads the team in scoring at 16.1 points per game, but next on the list behind there are a full six players who’s scoring averages fall between 7-10 points per game. And here’s the kicker: none of those six are Blair Schaefer, the guard who torched Troy and DePaul in the first and second rounds last weekend, being inserted into the starting lineup and scoring nearly 40 points combined in those two games, despite only averaging about five points per game coming in.
The frustration was evident for Troy head coach Chanda Rigby who watched the younger Schaefer set a career-high against her Trojans, getting a surprise start and dropping 21 points in the first round last Friday. Rigby’s game plan was useless almost immediately, as Schaefer took the court and scored MSU’s first 11 points in a row while MSU’s leading scorer cheered her on from the bench.
“We were going to deny the ball to [Vivians] and we really worked on that a lot this week,” she said. “If we knew Blair was going to come out and hit her first three or four shots, we would have stayed in on her, but we had no way of knowing that. That wasn’t in any scouting report so we had no idea that was going to happen.’
The same happened to DePaul, who was prepared on Sunday to face All-SEC point guard Morgan William and attempt to frustrate MSU’s offense by disrupting her flow. Instead, William ended up spending much of the second half on the bench as Jazzmun Holmes came out of seemingly nowhere to score 13 points and rack up six assists as she led the Bulldog attack.
“It’s hard to get teams who are really prepared for us because we’re so versatile,” Blair Schaefer said. “It’s difficult for them because they don’t know who’s going to go off on our team … They don’t know who’s gonna shoot, who’s gonna drive. We have such a versatile group.”
When they play tonight, MSU will know exactly who to be concerned with, they just have to hope they’ve figured out enough in three days to manage it. Washington will have to keep their head on a swivel as they watch to see which of MSU’s four aircraft carriers in the post and which of their more than half a dozen rotating guards are making plays each time up the court, relying on their own known stars and role players to lead the way.
For Neighbors and Schaefer to have come this far and to present such different styles despite their old ties may seem odd, but Schaefer knows that’s just part of coaching.
“As coaches,” he said, “that’s our job – to put our kids in the best spot possible where they can be successful.”