Do you feel like you got the ball rolling with your program this past season?
"We won 22 games in year-two. We made it to the Elite 8 in the WNIT. And we shouldn't have lost that game. But that teaches us the lesson that you have to play it out all the way, even to the final 4.1 seconds. But we lost to a really good team, a well-coached team. But I am proud of our team. We got down by 8 points late, found a way to come back. JJ (Jerica James) makes a great play and we take a lead. But with 4.1 seconds left, we just didn't get it done (on the defensive end).
"We still won 22 games in year-two. We went from winning 13 games in year-one to 22 in year-two. With the schedule that we had, that was pretty amazing. I am proud of how our kids learned to compete, proud of their toughness and how hard they learned to work. It's a step. The blueprint probably didn't have us winning 22 games in year-two. So I feel like we may be ahead of the schedule a little bit. Then, we signed a top-20 recruiting class in year-two after signing a top-35 class in year-one. Because of that, you have to feel good about where you are with your blueprint."
And coming into this season you have four of last year's starters back.
"Yes, we have four starters back but last year we had three new starters. We started two freshmen, Breanna Richardson and Dominique Dillingham, a junior college transfer, Savannah Carter, and we played another freshman, Ketara Chapel, 20 minutes a game. So, all of those kids that we signed were impact players for us. And we had Chinwe Okorie who sat out last year who will be a freshman this year. She is 6-foot-4 and has had a year's worth of practice under her belt.
"We've got the 20th ranked recruiting class coming in. And you add Chinwe to that class, then it's probably ranked among the top-15 to 12, maybe even in the top-10. We are excited about our youth. We'll have 9 freshmen and sophomores on this team. That is a lot of youth but also a lot of good players. The skillset of all those kids is really good. We feel really confident about where we are on the skillset level. Now, we have to work on their strength with Coach (Richard) Akins. And he is doing a great job with the kids in changing the way they look. Now, when we get off the bus, we at least look like an SEC team. It's an exciting time right now."
You've been able to work with the newcomers during the first summer session. Are they better than you thought they would be or about where you thought?
"They haven't competed against anybody yet but, based on what I have seen so far, they are what we thought they would be. My staff does a great job of evaluating talent. I think all of the newcomers are going to be good players for us. They are all going to impact our program. All of them have the mindset that they are not going to take a backseat to anyone. They are here to compete, find playing time and make an impact on our program. That is what you want."
Freshman Victoria Vivians has always been the top player on her team and also the top player in the state of Mississippi. Because she is so talented and been so high profile her entire high school career, has it been not so overwhelming for her even though she is now playing in the SEC?
"She has had expectations put on her all of her life. And I think she is very comfortable in that type environment. I think the thing that she is enjoying is she now has help. She is not going to be double and triple teamed anymore. Now, when she plays, there will be two feet in front of her instead of four or six guarding her. She had great teammates at Scott Central who filled great roles. I really admire those kids and their toughness and what Coach (Chad) Harrison did with that group. I know that Victoria appreciated them as well. But at the next level there is a appreciation for another level of teammates who will allow you to be successful in a different role.
"Victoria is obviously going to have expectations early in her career. But I think they are warranted. And I think she will embrace them."
What kind of expectations will you put on her as a freshman?
"She obviously has a really, really good skillset. I think it will be a matter of her being in our system and flourishing in how we do things. Again, it's basketball to her and she gets comfortable with that very quickly. You can see that when she's out there playing. For us (as coaches), we have to put her in positions where she can be successful."
She is so good offensively. Will her offensive game transfer to the SEC? Will she still be able to do what she did in high school, drive to the basket and shoot threes, against a new level of competition, SEC caliber competition?
"Yeah, that's a skillset that doesn't change. I think she would tell you this, her ball-handling needs to improve, especially with her left hand. She has to develop a left hand that she is comfortable with. That is one of the things that we are working on with her. We want to get her so that she is comfortable dribbling the ball with both her right and left hand.
"The other side of this is she will be going against the best of the best night-in, night-out. She will be a 19-year-old freshman going against 22-year-old seniors."
You mentioned Chinwe Okorie earlier. What are MSU fans going to see when they see her play this season?
"Physically, she is a different type specimen than we have. She is a big, strong, physical kid. On the court she does exactly what I want her to do. She can be a monster on the court, especially rebounding. It is difficult to get around her and it is hard to get a rebound from her. If that rebound is between her shoulders it is difficult for someone else to get it. What she has to work on is her offensive game. She does a good job of pinning you low, what I call low-low to the basket where all she has to do is turn around and lay it up over the rim. She is also going to give us some much-needed depth behind Martha Alwal. That will give Martha some rest that she hasn't been able to get in the past."
How has Dominique Dillingham improved since the season?
"Dominique is Dominique. She does all of the intangibles. She just needs to work on her jump shot. She has to become consistent with that shot. The only way that will change is by getting in the gym and shooting. We can't monitor her, so, hopefully, she is getting in the gym daily and weekly doing that."
What are your thoughts about the other newcomers?
"Morgan Williams is a tremendous point guard from Birmingham, Alabama. She has unbelievable quickness, great length, really good court sense, very savvy, a tough kid who will take a charge, a great on-ball defender. She is going to impact us a great deal. She is going to be a great point guard for us.
"Then you have Kayla Nevitt from Texas who is not afraid of competition. She is a long, athletic, big-wing player who can shoot it, drive it and defend.
"Blair (Schaefer) has great court sense, a great passer, a great team defensive player, great helper, will make her free throws. She will make shots if you leave her open. I think her challenge will be creating her own shot and learning the mid-range.
"LaKaris Salter is the 2A player of the year from Florida. She can really shoot it for a big kid. She is really talented skillset-wise kid who has size. She can play a number of positions for you, so she is very versatile. We'll have to work a little bit on her conditioning, but she'll get there."
What will make the upcoming season a success in your mind?
"My heart wants to get the seniors to the NCAA Tournament. Those kids have really bought into our system and laid it on the line for us. My heart really wants to get JJ, Martha and Kendra to the NCAA Tournament because they have been through some really tough times. Savannah Carter has won a national championship at Trinity Valley, so she knows what winning is all about. And I certainly want her to also experience it at this level.
"Once we get to that level, just like we did in the WNIT, there won't be anybody any better than us. At least we didn't feel like there was. We played in the SEC. Once we got out of that conference, we felt like we could beat anybody in the tournament. And we feel the same way about the NCAA Tournament."
You have not only put together an outstanding group of players but an outstanding group of coaches. If you were ranking them, they would all be 5-star talent. You've just added another 5-star talent in Elena Lovato.
"I'm extremely excited about that addition to our staff. She has won back-to-back national championships at Trinity Valley Community College as the head coach. She has a tremendous work ethic, a tremendous passion, well-respected nationally, a great recruiter. I am excited that we were able to get her here. Like you said, I have three 5-star assistants down the hall. And you can even throw Skylar Collins, my video coordinator, in that group. She won a national championship at Texas A&M.
"Coach Levato fits in with my other coaches. You always talk about chemistry on a team. But I think that starts with your staff. I love my staff and we consider each other family. We try to look out for each other and take care of each other. When we leave the office it's not over for us. We keep in constant touch with each other. I think that is what makes us unique. And I think recruits and parents see that as well."
My last question, when you win your first national championship here are you going to play a piano concert?
"(Laugh) You know, by then, I might be able too. I can't play real good right now but I'm trying. I'm trying to learn. I haven't taken a lesson in a while. But if I could ever learn I think it would be really relaxing. I've taken a few lesson locally with Miss Betsy Godbold. I haven't spent enough time with her that I need to. But she's probably done a bigger miracle with me than I have allowed her too. My wife can play the piano beautifully but she can't read music, so she can't teach me. But if you can hum it, she can play it."