The Bulldogs are 17-0, most wins in the country so far, and 2-0 SEC after defeating Georgia and Missouri. Though, their first league week was a real challenge for a real change. After dominating a series of lesser opponents the Bulldogs trailed for three-quarters before taking command in a 53-47 finish. Coach Vic Schaefer has grabbed the close call as a way to prepare his unbeaten team for all sorts of upcoming SEC situations. Including, he predicted, an inevitable first loss.
“It’s going to happen. But go out in a blaze of glory.”
This by no means is coaching pessimism. In fact Schaefer is as optimistic and as pleased as any of his players about climbing into the top-15. But not surprised, at all.
“I just think this team has a chance to be really, really good,” Schaefer said. “I told you in the beginning we had a chance to be a top-25 basketball team.” Mississippi State has done that before though. Goals are higher now and the third-year coach sees a club with staying power.
And after all, “Once you crack into that top 15, 12, 10, those teams are usually there to stay, there for the long haul.”
The say will be all the longer and the haul to post-season shorter if Mississippi State keeps avoiding any setbacks. They are among the country’s four remaining unbeatens, and have the most victories of anyone, anywhere. The 17-0 mark is of course the best start ever for a Bulldog team.
Extending that to 18 would make another piece of program history, though. State has never been 3-0 in SEC play. Arkansas should present a promising matchup, as while the Razorbacks are 10-4 they have lost both early SEC tests.
Even while winning Schaefer has found aspects in need of serious attention. Specifically offense, which seems strange since the Bulldogs top the SEC scoring list at nearly 82 points per game. Georgia and Missouri cut into the average a bit though, and Sunday in Columbia there was a point of, not really panic but concern said guard Kendra Grant.
”Coach had had enough. I guess at that point we were down nine and everybody said we can’t do what we’ve been doing.”
Not on offense anyway. The defense was just fine the whole time, no surprise after how Schaefer’s first two State squads performed on that end. This one can be even better with the greater size, depth, and versatility of the upgraded roster. “We’re a blue collar defensive team,” Schaefer said. “But offensively we’ve got a bunch of kids with a good skill set.”
A bunch indeed. And a larger bunch with the return to health of guard Grant and post player Martha Alwal, the standouts of last season. That they have been working back to game speed all season and still aren’t in the starting squad reflects why State has exploded onto the national stage this season.
At Missouri, the tipoff team was 6-1 Ketara Chapel and 6-1 Victoria Vivians at forwards; 6-5 center Chinwe Okorie; with guards Jerica James and Dominque Dillingham. Only James is a senior, like Grant and 6-4 Alwal. More size off the bench is provided by 6-1 Breanna Richardson, while Morgan Williams and Savannah Carter can split the ball-handling work and Blair Schaefer instant shooting.
If the coach wanted a rotation squad system can be applied, though substituting is more by position than platoon. Either way there is never lack of fresh legs on the floor for defense.
“Offensively, we’ve got some issues we have to address,” Schaefer said. “We spent some time on that in practice.” The coach is particularly focused on half-court efficiency, which wasn’t quite as necessary in most pre-SEC games as now when State sees better personnel and better coaching, Schaefer said.
In fact the Bulldogs shoot ‘only’ 42% overall, which is sixth in the league. That’s sort of deceptive though. Only top-ten South Carolina has made more treys than State which offsets many misses. Others end up as second-chances because Dogs already have 299 offensive rebounds. What keeps Schaefer on edge a little is that in league play putbacks aren’t as common, “so we have to execute better in half-court.”
Fabulous freshman Vivians has more than lived up to recruiting reputation and is third in SEC scoring at 15.2 points. She certainly has the size, strength, and skills to create baskets around the lane. But Vivians has the second-most made treys of any SEC shooter of any size, making for a terrific miss-match. And Schaefer still regards Vivians as a work-in-progress.
“Defense is the hardest part, for her the speed of the game and understanding the importance of that end. I thought she was better after I pulled her in the first half at Missouri, when she came back in she was much better.”
Getting Alwal back in the starting lineup will double the trouble. In fact Schaefer said she would be the “number one stop” assignment by opponents even ahead of Vivians. But maybe there is still some rust because the coach wants Alwal to get her shots up quicker. Another setback to half-court has been more turnovers than necessary, and for that matter more than the team’s assists total.
Even so James has ramped-up her play these past two weeks at the point, and Williams is an exciting quarterback though “Sometimes she gets going so fast she forgets to take the ball with her,” Schaefer said. Getting it to Grant in an open spot is always a good choice, and once 100% the annual spring semester head-butting between coach and ace shooter will resume. There are reasons Schaefer doesn’t go with Grant more minutes but he and she aren’t telling why, and it doesn’t seem to distract the team.
“Kendra has made shots and played pretty good defensively,” Schaefer acknowledges. Which only adds to the difficulty of getting everyone the minutes and shots they merit. If a team has to have a problem, that’s the best one possible.
“We’re literally two, three deep at every position,” Grant said. “If you’re on the court you have to keep it going.”
Besides, the coach said, “The cream rises to the top. And we’ve got a lot at the top.”
A home win Thursday will keep the Bulldogs at least tied on top of the SEC going into the weekend trip to Vanderbilt.