On the strength of consecutive conference victories at Arkansas and over Tennessee, the Ladydogs have been recognized as the ‘NCAA Team of the Week’. Though a purely symbolic honor, it does signal how #11-ranked Mississippi State is on ever-more minds.
Even better though was the NCAA’s initial release of their projected post-season tournament sites. State isn’t listed right now as a first-round host, but is one of four schools ‘under consideration’. Meaning? Keep up the winning and NCAA Regional play will be held in Humphrey Coliseum.
“We’re obviously excited coming off a great week in the history of our program,” Coach Vic Schaefer said. “We’re really proud of our team, and excited.”
But… such excitement needs sustaining. NCAA selections are still more than a month away and Mississippi State (19-3, 6-3 SEC) is just into the second half of conference play. So, as Schaefer would say, back to business.
“The grind doesn’t stop. We have another two-game stretch this week that’s tough. We have to go to LSU, a place we haven’t played well at.”
Tonight’s game in Baton Rouge is an 8:00 tipoff for the SEC Network.
The Maravich Center hasn’t been a happy venue for Mississippi State teams. LSU leads the all-time series 47-6 but of more immediate meaning Tiger teams have won the last nine meetings regardless of site. That includes a double-overtime setback for State last winter, a loss that more than most contributed to the Bulldogs coming up short of NCAA host status in 2015. Schaefer can remind his veterans of that close call and the eventual cost.
However this Tiger team is struggling at 8-14 and is currently last in the league standings at 2-7. Injuries have plagued LSU so far, something Schaefer cautions against reading too much into.
“I’ve never had much success against the wounded teams, it always seems to work out that way.” His last such trip to Baton Rouge was also complicated by weather problems as well, so something always seems to happen in this matchup.
“It’s just been a place we’ve struggled. But hey, with this group it’s all new. This is a different team.”
Mississippi State certainly is different. Last week’s win over Tennessee was the first in program history of course. Schaefer enjoyed making history but might have been just as pleased how the Bulldogs came down from that high just enough to take care of Arkansas.
The latter win also was important because it was a road victory. Of State’s three losses two were away from home, at Missouri and Georgia, with the Ladydogs playing poorly each time. Winning at Fayetteville was another encouraging sign of a maturing team, with four Dogs scoring in double-digits while holding the home team to 55 points.
Win or lose the stat sheet hasn’t been pretty for State of late, with struggling shooting percentages for most everyone. Though, that has to be put in context; good shooting teams, particularly outside shooting, is a rare thing this winter everywhere in the nation. Defense certainly rules in the SEC right now, and Mississippi State plays that well.
Guard/forward Victoria Vivians continues to set State’s pace with 17.5 points per game, third-best in the SEC. A sophomore, she is already past 900 career points and sure to top 1,000 before tournament time. Opponents have committed their best defender to chase the Bulldogs star around which is one reason for her modest accuracy.
The key is getting others to hit a few jumpers to take pressure off Vivians outside and free-up room inside. Point guard Morgan William may not hit a lot of long shots but at 5-5 dares the lane regularly to draw fouls and make free throws. William has double-digits in four of her last five games. Guard Dominque Dillingham has picked up her scoring pace in recent weeks as well, while forward Breanna Richardson attacks the lane.
There’s a touch of irony in State being national team of the week, because going into Tennessee the Bulldogs had lost three of four games. The last loss was legitimate, a defensive brawl with #2-ranked and unbeaten South Carolina at home. Still it was a loss and had State slipping in RPI and host projections.
Beating the Volunteers was a perfect way to right this ship. “It didn’t matter who the next game was, we just needed to win,” Schaefer said. The Dogs did, then regained some valuable road confidence.
Now it is put to test in an unfriendly venue tonight. “And, come back home to play a team we’ve already played,” said Schaefer. That is Sunday’s 2:00 home game with now-#22 Missouri in a rematch.