Mississippi State (22-3, 7-3 SEC) takes another shot at competing with Schaefer’s former employer, hosting the Aggies at 2:00 Sunday. It’s a true top-twenty matchup. The Bulldogs are #17, while Texas A&M (17-5, 5-3) is a few notches higher at #14.
Then again, Schaefer’s squad is just getting into a February full of ranked opponents. They are coming off a competitive but losing effort at #6 Tennessee on Sunday. Waiting on into the month are #1 South Carolina and #11 Kentucky.
The schedule-makers certainly have done State no February favors. Yet the Bulldogs aren’t complaining. They had to play their top-twenty peers eventually, after all. As guard Jerica James said, “Tennessee was a good matchup to prepare us for the next games, Texas A&M and Kentucky, and South Carolina, too.”
Tennessee wasn’t a good matchup for record reasons, taking a 79-67 decision in Knoxville. The margin slightly deceives as in the waning minutes State got within a couple of possessions. “We scored 67 points, I was pretty encouraged by that,” said Schaefer. “We just couldn’t guard them and they mauled us inside.” Still the Bulldogs knew they were beaten by a better and certainly bigger team in a hostile setting.
This game is at home, in a venue that may not merit a ‘hostile’ label quite yet but is surely getting there. Attendance records are crumbling this winter as Schaefer’s third team puts on a fine show. They win here, too, with one double-overtime exception so far.
Now Mississippi State needs all available support. Not to mention a fan base with a short memory of the last time Texas A&M came to town. It was the first season for Schaefer who’d left College Station to take this position. Today the coach unequivocally calls that 81-33 rout a case of being “outclassed, outmatched.”
“Last year (73-35) wasn’t much better,” Schaefer said. “It’s been a tough matchup for us, no question. Hopefully this team will be ready to be up to the challenge.”
There’s more than hope to work with. The Bulldogs have a far different, far more developed, far deeper and far more talented team. They also have Victoria Vivians this time.
The freshman is far-and-away top Dog on the team, fifth in SEC all-season scoring at 14.6 points with as many made-treys as the next three teammates combined. Her percentages have taken a hit in SEC season, as to be expected. She’s shooting just 37% overall. Schaefer gives Vivians right at 25 minutes per-game because this is a freshman still and the obstacles only increase in month-four of the first campaign.
“From (playing) mid-major schools to the SEC right now everything is totally different,” Vivians said. “I was scoring, do anything at will. But they guard hard, run the floor hard. I have to be prepared for that. My toughest thing now is defense, I think my offense is coming.”
Most programs would be worried if the second-leading scorer, in this case guard Morgan William at 9.2 was only A) 38th in the conference standings and B) not a starter anyway. This actually reflects the strongest part of State’s squad. Schaefer has remarkable depth to dispose of and to distribute minutes with.
Only nails-tough guard Dominque Dillingham gets close to the 30-minute mark, at 29.0. Eight teammates net from Vivians’ 24.8 to 14.7. Fresh legs to last out a game is never a question, and a month from now when tournament time begins that fact will loom all the larger.
At the same time, Schaefer welcomed this unique week in his schedule, with no game between Sundays. “We needed the break. We were the only team in the league that didn’t have a bye (yet),” Schaefer said. “The kids got it Monday and Tuesday, we didn’t do a thing in basketball.” Wednesday got the team together for a weights workout, and Thursday was back to practice.
In fact, “We’re only going to have one day from a prep standpoint,” Schaefer said. “The biggest prep was the break. We’re still young.”
They are healthy, too. Every game senior center Martha Alwal looks more like her old self after early-season issues. She’s up to 8.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, and has swatted 45 shots.
“The blocking shots, I’ve been doing since middle school,” Alwal said. “But it’s kind of cool being in the record books.” The SEC books too, as she’s just the third player to have 1,000 career points, 900 rebounds, and 300 blocks.
State needs Alwal and everyone on their best game to change trends against the Aggies and Schaefer’s former boss. So to veteran point guard James even a few days-off wasn’t really a ‘break’. The Bulldogs know what is ahead.
“We’re still working,” James said. “Texas A&M is a pretty good team so we’re using this time wisely to get ready for them. Hopefully this week will be an advantage for us.”
“Obviously in February you want to have confidence, and I think we do,” said Schaefer, who admitted that after last year’s repeat rout the word was laid down. “We talked about everybody had to change. Had to get uncomfortable. And we had to change the makeup of our roster. I think we’ve done that in the two years since. “Right now our team is confident and rightfully so, I think they felt confident going to Tennessee and I think they felt confident coming out. They feel they can compete with anyone and I feel the same way.”