Mississippi State has that opportunity this weekend, as they head to the 2016 conference meet. The Bulldogs (24-6) report to Jacksonville as the #3 seed and an automatic quarterfinalist, with a two-round bye in fact. That means waiting until tonight to learn the opponent for Friday’s 7:30ct matchup.
So Schaefer and staff will be watching the late Thursday game between #6 seed Georgia and #11 Vanderbilt. Whoever is on the other bench, the Bulldog will be well-rested…but not completely comfortable.
“Dominique (Dillingham) said it the other day, ‘We’re the hunted now’,” said Schaefer. “We have the bullseye on our back and our kids have to prepare a different way than two years ago.”
Or even a year ago. Mississippi State went to the 2015 tournament seeded #3 as well, and with the double-bye. It was the first time the Bulldog program had ever held such lofty status…and they fell flat, knocked off by Kentucky on Friday.
So Schaefer has still-raw memories to call on in preparing this 2016 team. But he also uses it as a positive point.
“You get through the grind of a SEC season, and we’re fortunate to be 11-5 again. We’re very excited about the opportunity to play Friday.”
Schaefer’s squad takes the right kind of momentum to Jacksonville. State ended the regular schedule beating Vanderbilt and Alabama, which combined with a Texas A&M loss on the last day earned a tie for SEC second place. The Aggies got the higher seed on a direct tiebreak, but second is still the highest-ever finish by a Bulldog team…yet another achievement for Schaefer’s program in just four seasons.
Also going onto the total is the collection of All-SEC honors for three Bulldogs. Sophomore Victoria Vivians was named first-team by the conference coaches this week, as the league’s second-leading scorer (16.7ppg).
Backup center Teaira McGowan was named All-Freshman for her 6.9 points and 5.9 rebounds this rookie year. And for the All-Defense Team, well, that was an automatic for junior guard Dominique Dillingham. In fact, “That’s about two years late,” Schaefer said.
This double-bye ought benefit the Bulldogs more than most teams. Four are wearing protective boots around campus these days, including Vivians. Point guard Morgan William has played for months with a painful leg—“Every now and then it flares up,” Schaefer said—and backup guard Jazzmun Guy’s season has been interrupted with blows to her head.
The coach’s chief concern is quarterback William, second-leading scorer at 10.0 points and one of the league’s leaders in assists. “You’re never going to be 100% this time of year,” Schaefer said. “But we need our little engine full-speed.”
Based on seeding, Georgia (21-8) would seem to be State’s likely opponent. They had a day-off of their own, but are also missing their second-leading scorer to a season-ending injury. Vanderbilt had to play in Wednesday’s first round and beat Ole Miss 74-59 to snap a long losing streak. The Bulldogs routine their way through a win last week at Nashville.
But they don’t have the same success to show this year against the other Bulldogs. Georgia won a slow, physical contest in Athens 47-43 back in January. Of interest is how Vivians played in those two games, scoring 21 against Vanderbilt and 20 against Georgia.
This is the SEC’s first tournament, men or women, played in Jacksonville. It won’t be a new venue for these Bulldogs though. They played South Florida in Veterans Memorial Arena last December, winning 68-58. The neutral site matchup was booked with utterly ulterior motives, Schaefer agreed: to learn about the arena in advance.
“That was the whole purpose of going there. We’ve had a whole practice in there, a shootaround in there, and a game in there.”
Mississippi State knows their season will continue past Jacksonville. They will have to wait another week for the NCAA Tournament announcement to show their seeding and siting. Of course with a big run this weekend, and particularly if the Bulldogs can make the finals at the expense of Texas A&M, it remains possible State can host a first-round NCAA game. A SEC Tourney title would practically guarantee it.
Schaefer however has downplayed such talk since consecutive losses to A&M and Kentucky. All on his mind was recovering from that stretch, which his team did; and rebuilding momentum for tournament time.
“Each time we bounced back with a two- or three-game win streak. That says a lot about our moxie.” And how the Bulldogs perform in Jacksonville will say a lot about their NCAA prospects, too, Schaefer figures.
“If you can get through the SEC Tournament, you can get through the next one as well.”