February finds the Lady Bulldogs and South Carolina atop the Southeastern Conference standings. Not tied, exactly. The Gamecocks (18-2, 8-1) have played and won one more league game. Thus they still take top billing while Mississippi State (22-1, 7-1) stands right behind. Loom, even.
“There’s a lot of basketball left,” Coach Vic Schaefer said. “Today our kids should feel, you’re right there.”
Right there isn’t quite there. South Carolina also holds the head-to-head edge based on last week’s three-point win in Columbia. But a Monday evening loss has dragged them back within reach.
That is the good news. The not-bad news but cautionary reminder is, Mississippi State can’t afford February slip-ups of their own.
“There’s so much left, too many games,” Schaefer said. “We have a really tough road schedule and our home schedule is no better. You just take one at a time.”
The next one is on the road, a Thursday visit to Auburn (15-7, 5-3) with 8:00 tipoff. These Tigers aren’t just the next challenge but a different sort of cat to scheme against too. Schaefer sees a veteran team with four starters back and better. On top of that…
“They play a style that’s hard to handle.” This means defense where Auburn employs full-court and full-time pressure with a long and athletic lineup. At the same time this is an ‘offensive’ defense because the Tigers count on forcing turnovers and converting them into easy points.
Auburn can and does run a more routine offense built around a backcourt that can get the ball around the floor and set up a couple of good shooters. Still it is their frantic defense which is key to competitiveness…and exactly where Schaefer figures to attack, odd as it seems on surface.
“You’re going to have to be in attack mode most of the game, and stay that way.” Because as the Bulldogs found last year in a 60-45 win, breaking the pressure sets up simpler shots of their own.
This is also a State squad even better equipped to take on the Tiger style.
“The good thing is we’re a veteran team and have had to deal with it for a few years,” said Schaefer, adding “You’re going to have to have some substitutions.” Guards Morgan William, Dominique Dillingham, and Victoria Vivians are able to beat a press as starters; while subs Jazzmun Holmes and Roshunda Johnson are no less capable off the bench. Maybe even better in some series, taller and more physical than some of the starters.
There is another aspect to this matchup that can bode well for Bulldogs. For all their January successes, as well as in the lone loss, Schaefer has seen stretches where his team relaxes, loses rhythm, almost goes into cruise mode. Mississippi State is good and deep enough to win most of the time this way.
But they are better when forcing the action. Such as in their bounce-back performance Sunday, taking care of Texas A&M. “We had a heck of a game,” Schaefer said. With, an outstanding second period that essentially sealed the victory before halftime.
“That second quarter makes me as a coach want to duplicate that four times in a game. And we’ve had some quarters like that.”
So why not entire games like that? Schaefer understands the difficulty college kids have in keeping 100% focus for forty full minutes. He also agrees that while his bench is the team’s greatest strength, changing lineups can ruin rhythm. Not always; “Sometimes you gain it,” Schaefer said of subbing.
However he has one clear key to continuity, on offense especially. “The more players that touch the ball, the more we turn it over. The more the ball stays in Morgan’s hands, the less we turn it over.”
State’s senior point guard is indeed having a huge year. In fact some figure she is more important to the team’s success game by game than even All-American and leading scorer Vivians, since the latter’s shooting can run hot-and-cold. William is the cool head in control most minutes, as well as an outside shooting threat in her own right.
Getting the ball inside is the increasing key though. The tag-team posts Chinwe Okorie and Teaira McCowan have become excellent, efficient scorers and, when not hampered by fouls, the strong defensive presence. Even with fouls State can count on low-key but very important work at both ends by under-appreciated forward Breanna Richardson.
So for all the perimeter potential Schaefer can call on, “We have to trust those two down low and give them more looks.”
As the calendar turns to February it will be difficult not to look ahead at March. Every Bulldog game matters in NCAA Tournament calculus and all the more so now. Mississippi State has maintained its #4 RPI standing, which is so critical towards earning a number-one seeding. But this is as fragile as the next game and of course subject to what peers around the country do. Or don’t.
At the same time the SEC championship is a race again. Both contenders have tough months ahead, though they cannot meet until the conference tournament after the title is taken. State still must go to Kentucky and A&M and host Tennessee to wrap up the regular season. Five of the last eight scheduled games are against teams currently with RPIs of 33 or better.
South Carolina has their own minefield to cross with two matchups against Kentucky and trips to Missouri and A&M. Also, while it won’t matter in SEC terms or hurt their RPI, the Gamecocks must visit almighty Connecticut mid-month.
So begins a February of high stakes and higher hopes. Schaefer often said he didn’t want his team peaking in January. That month is done so, it is time for the Bulldogs to find their prime.
“We’re not going to change,” Schaefer said. “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. My challenge is get one minute, one play better. If you do that at the end of the year you’ve got a chance.”