Mississippi State (22-6, 9-5 SEC) starts this final week of the regular schedule Thursday, visiting Vanderbilt for a 7:00ct meeting. They conclude this portion of the season Sunday at 1:30 hosting Alabama.
Then, comes Jacksonville and the SEC Tournament. It’s almost startling how quickly the season has blown by for Coach Vic Schaefer’s squad. It’s also been a radical ride down the schedule-stretch for Mississippi State, which is currently ranked #16 in both major polls.
They were trying to battle back into the top-ten before losses at Texas A&M and to Kentucky, fellow top-twenty clubs. So the fall in this week’s rankings wasn’t a big deal, and State righted their stride by winning at Ole Miss Sunday 60-51.
Going into this final week the Bulldogs, and 12 other teams, aren’t playing for a regular season championship. 14-0 South Carolina locked up the league title last week and is going for SEC perfection. But second place in the standings and thus the SEC Tournament seedings remains in play. Barely, for State, because not only must the Dogs win their last two games but Texas A&M (10-4) has to lose both theirs. The Aggies have the direct tie-break on MSU.
Schaefer however sees the flip-side. Based on current standings, and without delving into all the twisted tiebreaks, the Bulldogs could conceivably finish as low as eighth. Never mind the tougher bracket this would mean in Jacksonville, it would kill confidence ahead of the NCAA Tournament.
This is why the coach came out of Oxford a happier man ahead of this Vanderbilt trip.
“We played pretty well on the road Sunday. And we’ve had other games on the road where we’ve played well, like Arkansas and LSU. I’m anxious to get back to playing in a different environment and see how we adjust.”
Memorial Gymnasium is an obviously different environment. For coaches, especially, thanks to its unique end-line benches and odd sight-lines from any angle. All coaches are control freaks to some extent and this set-up grates on Schaefer more than most.
“Your point guard is away from you in the first half, then your defense is away from you in the second half.” Not being in hailing range of the quarterback appears to be Schaefer’s main challenge. “You really have to have some presence at that position and some accountability running your team.”
Morgan William is the quarterback of this club, and the SEC’s third-leading assister at 5.1 per game. She is also second in Bulldog scoring at 9.9, though her offense is more about driving for layup chances instead of popping outside jumpers.
The long shots, those come from Victoria Vivians. Mostly in big bunches, and without a lot of accuracy this season. State’s all-America candidate is only hitting 30% of her three-point tries, and for that matter just 38% overall. So getting her 16.8-point average, second-best in the SEC, is a result of sheer shooting volume.
Until Sunday, that is. At Ole Miss, the sophomore only put up three trey-tries (making one), instead attacking the basket more. The result was 9-of-15 accuracy inside the arc and 22 points. It was her best shooting since late December, and Vivians balanced that with ten rebounds…nine of them on the defensive end.
Vivians won’t be moving to the front line full-time of course. But this does give defenders something else to plan for beyond just having somebody chase Vivians around the perimeter all evening as has been the case to now. She’s a capable passer as well, which ought keep posts Chinwe Okorie and Teaira McGowan looking for the ball to come their way(s). The big Dogs shoot 56% and 50% respectively but have only 309 combined field goal attempts. Vivians herself has taken 475 shots.
Schaefer is concerned in late-February about the wear and tear on Vivians, William, and others. Not, it needs noting, tough-gal guard Dominique Dillingham who has to be dragged off the court or sent off by fouls. State could be getting a boost to the backcourt with the return of Jazzmun Holmes to action after injury layoff.
It’s not a layoff per se, but for Vanderbilt the last two weeks have been painful. The Commodores are 15-12 overall and 4-10 SEC, having lost seven-straight games. If that raises concerns that State could go in over-confident, Schaefer need only haul out the video from their last trip to Nashville. That was when an 18-0 Bulldog team got whipped 78-62.
“It’s a place where there hasn’t been a lot of success for any team going in there,” Schaefer said. But, this should be a different and better-prepared Mississippi State squad invading Memorial Gymnasium.
“We’ve played well at times on the road this year, and I’m anxious to see how we’ll do there.”