Ready to play Sunday that is, as the Lady Bulldogs risk their national ranking and third place in the SEC standings. Game time is 2:00 with on-line broadcast by SEC Network+.
That Mississippi State’s coach is issuing alerts, about the dangers of falling into a classic SEC road trap, says much for where the Bulldogs (24-4, 9-4) are. In a good way. Not so long ago a trip to Tuscaloosa meant a matchup of comparable clubs. This year, Schaefer brings one of the country’s elite teams to town.
Along with their consensus top-twenty polling position, State’s NCAA Tournament future seems secure. Now they are playing to lock-up one of the valuable first-round byes at the SEC Tournament, and improve their national tournament seeding. Hosting a NCAA Regional no longer seems a possibility based on the national body’s latest RPI standings.
The bye? That is very possible but far from assured. Schaefer’s Dogs are in a three-way tie for third place now. One of those, 9-4 LSU, owns the head-to-head tiebreak after a double-overtime win in Starkville a month ago. But Mississippi State has the same sort of edge on 9-4 Texas A&M thanks to an overtime home win over the Aggies last week.
None have any shot at the SEC title, as South Carolina and Tennessee are each 13-0 with three games left.
At first glance Sunday doesn’t look too daunting a trip. Alabama (13-15, 2-11) is next-to-last in the league and just playing out the season. Schaefer isn’t taking anything for granted, not after his 2014 experience in Tuscaloosa.
“Last year we got beat in overtime. I expect a very dangerous team, a competitive team.” Alabama was that when they came to Humphrey Coliseum this season, too. The final margin looked like an easy Bulldog win. But well into the second half State was struggling, especially to score. The Crimson Tide used a tall zone that forced backcourt Bulldogs towards the wings and cut off open passes inside.
State did eventually work through that; and Alabama’s offense was missing in action all afternoon. Still the rematch, on the road, is a concern for Schaefer. “They’ve been in just about every ball game. They play a different style, they’re going to trap us in the halfcourt. And they gave us fits here. The end score was no indication how close that was.”
Plus, Schaefer said, Alabama is holding out some hope for a WNIT bid. Upsetting Mississippi State would be a good step in that direction.
The Bulldogs are coming off a second slow week in February, not playing since Sunday’s home win over Florida. Schaefer used it to give players a couple of days-off, then a short Wednesday practice. So State expects to be full-strength going into the closing stretch.
They also have settled into a productive routine of starters, rotation players and when needed reserves. The pre- and early-season injuries served a long-term useful purpose in accelerating development of the sophomores and freshmen who now play leading roles.
Most notably, rookie guard Victoria Vivians who by all rights ought be rated the SEC’s top freshman. She is co-freshman of the week after a brilliant evening at Kentucky, and third in SEC scoring regardless of class at 15.0 points. Vivians does much of her damage at the arc and has the second-most treys of any league shooter.
Vivians admits things don’t come nearly as easily as in pre-SEC season…much less her pre-college days. “It’s not like high school! I’m trying to grasp the game and play a little better. I wouldn’t say it’s slowing down because everything is still fast.” But then Vivians has gotten up to SEC speed herself.
Speaking of speed…the fast maturing of Morgan William has kicked State’s offense into fast-forward. As a true freshman herself William is more than the alternate to starting point guard Jerica James. She is fourth in SEC assists while playing less than half a game’s minutes.
But it isn’t just the freshman contingent pacing this ball club. Senior James gets games going and gives occasional scoring punch at point too. Senior center Martha Alwal since her return to full strength has been a sure source for post points and rebounds, and is the league’s leading shot-blocker to boot.
The glue to the gang though are sophomore forward Breanna Richardson and guard Dominque Dillingham. Richardson looks like a power player and certainly can work the lane effectively. But she’s also able to step outside for jumpers, even treys, and leave defenses a tough mismatch decision.
Soph Dillingham is arguably the toughest individual defender in the league, certainly among SEC guards. Her hustle pays off on offense increasingly, because with opponents trying to cover Alwal and Vivians there will be a gap to exploit.
What makes Mississippi State special now though, as well as a real post-season threat, is the team’s unusual depth. Not just numbers, valuable as that can be; but the talent Schaefer brings off his bench. Every starter has a quality alternate, including Vivians. Because few clubs in the country can bring a Kendra Grant in the game at any point to put up points. Fast.
“You have to give our kids credit for that, especially those coming off the bench,” Schaefer said. “You have to give those kids credit for unselfishness. They don’t have the ‘I’ on their forehead. I wish I could play all 14 of them.”
If the Bulldogs do play well Sunday, the coach could well have that luxury. There certainly should be more than that many Mississippi State fans in the Alabama arena. “I think we’re taking a couple of bus-loads over and we’re going to need all of them and then some.”