Mississippi State Back on the Road With Highest-Ever Ranking

It is a calculated risk. So far though Vic Schaefer’s calculations to schedule strong and leave home is a winner.

The next road act for #6-ranked Mississippi State comes with a trip to Iowa State. Game time is 1:30ct for FOX Sports broadcast, and is part of this year’s SEC/Big12 Challenge.

“We’ve had some good trips,” said Schaefer. “And obviously a huge challenge going to Ames in what I expect to be a packed Hilton Coliseum.”

The unbeaten Lady Bulldogs (7-0) are playing away from home a seventh time in their eight November games. That one home date was key, beating then-#8 Texas before a rowdy crowd. So noise of any sort won’t be a factor, Schaefer figures.

Nor is making long trips. Though, the Iowa climate likely won’t compare well to what the Bulldogs experienced last week in their three-win stay in Hawaii. Then again opening the season with three other games in Maine was no thermal treat either.

The real point is no matter the outside conditions, Mississippi State has been hot on all courts. Nor has friendly confines been necessary in climbing to the program’s highest-ever ranking. “I’m confident in this team,” said Schaefer.

“We’ve got a team that prepares well, or has so far. They love to play, it doesn’t matter where. When the lights come on they’re excited.”

The Cyclones (5-0) are also unbeaten coming into the Challenge matchup. They destroyed Arkansas State 105-53 over the weekend, in a fifth home game to begin their schedule. Schaefer knows Ames from his own pre-SEC seasons with Texas A&M, and knows the potential pitfalls. The Bulldogs are the better team by any measure to be sure…

…but so far they have not dealt with a truly hostile crowd. Yet, “I think we’ll enjoy going there and playing in front of those fans. When you have a veteran team you have a chance going in there and have success. But it won’t be easy.”

The Bulldogs made it look easy enough in Hawaii with wins over Oregon, San Jose State, and the host Rainbows. This was the second November tournament trophy brought back home, around beating Tulane in Biloxi.

Though beating Texas got more headlines, Schaefer’s overarching plan of playing quality RPI clubs like Oregon and Tulane on neutral floors involves more than rankings. Those victories will loom larger in Mach when the NCAA seeds and sites teams. So while State fans have only been able to watch their squad once on the home floor, the potential for NCAA first- and even second-weekend regional play in Humphrey Coliseum is already strong.

“It’s a special time,” Schaefer said. “It’s early, we have to keep that in mind. We’ve certainly passed a few tests here at home and on the road against quality opponents.”

There has been another price to pay though. Travel time has cut into practice time. The Bulldogs spent Monday returning from the Islands, and were given Tuesday off to recover. There will only be two practices ahead of Iowa State, and once back it is fall finals week.

“We need to practice. Sometimes winning can mask problems and I can see those things.”

Clearly these problems aren’t exactly crippling, or not yet. Some simply arise from Schaefer still figuring out the best rotations and matchup from a roster with ten Dogs averaging double-digit minutes; and only guard Dominique Dillingham playing more than 25.

Depth is good of course. But consistency is tougher to develop without extended minutes together. What helps is efficiency from whoever is on court in whatever combination. One real point of progress this season is post-shooting with posts Chinwe Okorie (9.6ppg, 6.9rpg) at 55%, Teaira McGowan (7.2, 5.9) at 50% even, and forward Breanna Richardson (5.6, 3.7) 52%.

The team as a whole is hitting almost 48%, some of it due to defense as Schaefer said. The Bulldogs are not just forcing turnovers but converting them into easier points. “The fact we’re getting transition off the press, and our posts can finish, affects (shooting) tremendously,” Schaefer said. “You’re not living and dying off the jumper.”

Still there are Bulldogs able to let it rip from range. Guard Victoria Vivians (14.4ppg) has a dozen treys though she’s getting a bit more selective this season. The big boost for 2017 has been redshirted guard Roshunda Johnson (9.7ppg) with 13 three-pointers. Their outside threat opens some room for point guard Morgan William (10.1ppg, 26 asts) to get in closer for two-pointers or deliver the inside pass.

The Bulldogs were greeted upon return by news they had just reached #6 by Associated Press. There has been good individual news as well, with Vivians and William both named to the Naismith Trophy preseason watch list. They are among 50 being considered for the award given by the Atlanta Tipoff Club.

With multiple all-star candidates and a top-ten ranking Mississippi State finds itself in an ever-brighter national spotlight. The natural risk is host teams circle these game dates, with a visit by the Bulldogs the high point of pre-conference schedules. Maybe entire schedules now.

Attention has not hampered Schaefer’s squad yet. Maybe just the opposite, said the coach.

“We’re going to try to keep that hunter mentality even though we are the hunted. That’s something we’ve taken great pride in.”

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