Thursday evening brings the next such chance. And, one of the best yet. #13 Mississippi State (17-4, 4-3 SEC) even brings a higher ranking into this annual matchup for the first time ever. The Lady Vols (12-7, 3-3) are #19. Game time in Humphrey Coliseum is 8:00ct for the SEC Network.
“Another great opponent,” Coach Vic Schaefer said. “It doesn’t get any easier in this league.”
A league that, once past undefeated and #2 ranked South Carolina, has become an all-out brawl. There are seven squads with two or three losses already, and the conference schedule hasn’t even hit half-way yet.
“It’s as bunched-up as it’s ever been after seven games,” Schaefer said. “Take South Carolina out of the equation and it’s bunched-up. Everybody every night is playing for something pretty special.”
Such as, post-season position. The Bulldogs know they are on-track for a return to the NCAA Tournament. The 2016 goal is a high enough seed for hosting first-round play, something the ’15 team fell just short of. Coming in second in the SEC would almost guarantee a NCAA game in the Hump.
But that will mean much more consistent play than State has shown lately. Since an upset loss at Missouri spoiled the perfect league start the Bulldogs have dropped two more conference games, at Georgia and to South Carolina 57-51 in last Sunday’s showdown.
So, “We’ve got to right the ship,” Schaefer said. “We’ve lost three out of four and not played well in two of them. We have to try to stop the bleeding. We need to answer the bell.”
The home court should help, as State is 11-1 in the Hump. Schaefer also reports a good Tuesday practice addressing some of the issues. Shooting tops the list.
In their three league losses the Bulldogs were good on only 29% of all attempts; and a frightening 14% on three-point attempts. All that kept the defeats close was taking more shots than the opponents, thanks to respectable rebounding but more so limiting turnovers.
Schaefer is not looking for a magic solution to the shooting woes at this point. “You’ve got to keep taking good shots. And trade that good shot for a great shot sometime.” Or don’t take it at all, he added. State is emphasizing better screening, getting others open and finding them in the right places to take the great shots.
“That’s our next step in our evolution offensively. It’s a culmination of things but all of them are fixable.”
If Thursday plays-out the right way, it will be the culmination of a long and consistent history with Tennessee. The visitors are a perfect 36-0 in a series dating back to the 1970s. While the early decades were a clear case of a far-superior program dominating, Mississippi State has made the games far more competitive in last dozen or so seasons. There were a couple of Starkville games where Vol teams had to hit the last shot to escape upset, and in 2014 State fell short by four points at home.
This Tennessee team is coming off a tight Monday loss at Kentucky. The overall record reflects the usual sky-high schedule strength that program plays out-of-conference.
“A veteran team, again. A big team, long, athletic, quick. There are seven McDonalds All-Americans, nine total all-American on the team so enough said,” Schaefer noted. Though, later he did add, “They used to be stacked with twelve of them, they’ve still got nine of them.”
State…does not. At the same time this program has also earned its place in the rankings, reaching as high as #6 before the Missouri trip. Knocking off one of the real names in the game would be the next statement.
As well as do something else unique for Ladydog basketball.
“We’ve set all kinds of new records, we’ve done something new every year,” Schaefer said. “If we do win that will be another thing that we’ve never done.”