Now after blowing through their 2016 schedule unscathed and holding a top-five ranking for three weeks, conference action opens. On New Years Day no less as Mississippi State hosts Louisiana State with a 2:00 tipoff in Humphrey Coliseum.
The Bulldogs will begin 2017 with that #5 ranking reinforced by a 14-0 record. There have been impressive wins over ranked opponents, gutsy wins in hostile settings, a few lackluster wins on neutral floors, and so on. The common thread: all have been victories. Plus, for only the second time ever, Mississippi State ran the table in November and December.
So shouldn’t Coach Vic Schaefer be happy? Well, he is, sort of…
“It’s great that we’re 14-0 in the non-conference. But really that doesn’t mean anything if we don’t take care of the next two months.”
This is the measure of how much has changed around Lady Bulldog basketball. A perfect pre-SEC show is just the opening act for a team with conference championship ambitions.
This doesn’t downplay what Schaefer’s fifth Mississippi State has achieved already. These Dogs are openly chasing the 18-win streak of the 2014-15 team, which also included a sweep of pre-league play. Plus all the fall semester success will count come March when NCAA seeds and sites are assigned.
Still as Schaefer repeated, “It’s great what we’ve accomplished to date. But it doesn’t matter if we don’t go take care of business in the SEC.”
Louisiana State ought serve well to focus everyone. The Tigers are 11-2 and on a five-win streak of their own. There is also a history here which is no fun for Bulldog teams to recall. Until last January when State took a 71-52 decision in Baton Rouge, LSU teams had won nine-straight meetings and 26 out of 28 games since 1995.
These Dogs did end the skid a year ago, but Schaefer dumps some chilly water on that memory as well noting that LSU was dealing with injuries in 2015-16. Not now. “They’ve finally got kids healthy they didn’t have last year,” Schaefer said.
“Guard play is outstanding, the inside players really play hard. Defensively they’re all over the place in that zone they play.” Mississippi State has the shooters to beat a zone of course, with guards Victoria Vivians (16.2ppg) and Roshunda Johnson (8.5ppg) combining for 49 treys. Guard Blair Schaefer has hit 19 more as a rotation gunner.
So the Bulldogs have averaged nearly six made-threes a game so far. LSU is at the other end of the SEC stat sheet, at 1.1 per night. “They want to drive and score,” Schaefer said. “And they’re good at it.” Because, the coach explained, Tiger guards have size and strength and prefer pushing the ball inside the arc for pullups in defenders’ faces. Or just over their heads, and perimeter size is one potential miss-match Sunday for sure.
That approach is another way of drawing fouls as well. Fortunately Mississippi State has quality depth in the backcourt, and even better is at full-strength again. Senior guard Dominique Dillingham returned from a six-game absence, after a knee procedure, to play 19 minutes on Wednesday. Dillingham (7.3ppg) isn’t scoring quite as much as last winter but her shooting is much better. And of course, it is gutsy defense which makes her such a fan favorite. Getting her back in time for SEC season has to help club confidence.
State stayed unbeaten without Dillingham, including wins at Iowa State and Southern Cal, in large part because point guard Morgan William (10.9ppg, 52 assists) has raised her play greatly. Getting the ball to Vivians in open spots, or inside to center Chinwe Okorie (9.5ppg) and forward Breanna Richardson (8.1ppg) is the quarterback’s first goal of course. But William isn’t shy to take her own shots and is making 52% of them.
So far this sounds lots like last year’s team and numbers. Where 2017 is different is getting guard Johnson active after a redshirt season; and the development of post Teaira McGowan and guard Ameshya Williams. Add veteran depth in Ketara Chapel and Jazzmun Holmes and Mississippi State has conference contender numbers, experience, and total talent.
Oh, and excitement, too. The mid-week crushing of Northwestern State was watched by 6,352. That was on a holiday season Wednesday with students gone. Sunday should draw more for SEC season.
A season with epic expectations, too, compared to simple hope in previous Januarys. With expectations comes a different sort of pressure, too.
“I do have a veteran team,” Schaefer said. “I do think they understand what’s coming down the pike. But now it’s a matter of preparation.”