#5-ranked Mississippi State returns home for a Sunday afternoon visit from Missouri. Tipoff is 1:30 for a ‘white out’ game.
“We have to defend the home court,” Coach Vic Schaefer said. Fortunately, “It’s something we’ve been pretty good at.”
Very good at, in fact. Not that Mississippi State (22-1, 8-1 SEC) has been pressed very often or very hard in Humphrey Coliseum this winter. An intentional road-heavy schedule before SEC season means this is just the eighth home game all season. And, one of only four more.
On the schedule, that is. As a top-five ranked team and much more to the point the #4 team in the NCAA’s posted ratings power index, the Bulldogs are on track to again host regional play. Just like last year. What State wants this time around is to be a top-seed in a full Regional.
Winning the Southeastern Conference championship would just about seal that deal. Now in their second-half of league season the Bulldogs are even in the loss column with South Carolina, though trailing on head-to-head tiebreak. Since both contenders have tough February slates ahead the opportunities to stumble are sizable.
But the prize…is epic. “You’re playing for a ring,” said Schaefer. It’s the theme he uses daily to keep Mississippi State focused, not on the ultimate goal but the step by step by step process. “So every team deserves your utmost attention and focus.”
Missouri (16-7, 6-3) would deserve it under any circumstances. “Red hot,” was Schaefer’s description of the Tigers, now in a three-way tie for SEC third place right behind leaders South Carolina and State. Missouri prepared for this trip by knocking off ranked Kentucky on the home court last Monday. “They’ve won five in a row and are playing pretty well. They’ve had all week to get ready for us.”
Mississippi State leads the short series 5-1 after losing the first meeting. That belies the competitiveness of these games, Schaefer said.
“They always play us very smart, so we’re going to have to step up and make some lays on offense. And they average eight threes made a game, so we’ve got to guard the line a little bit. And win the hustle plays which is hard against this team.”
At the same time the Bulldogs have been hardened by seasons of success, mostly together. In fact Sunday gives the 2017 seniors their opportunity to become the first four-year class with 100 wins. They are 99-30 since arriving for 2013-24, which is the second-most wins of any SEC program in this period.
These upperclassmen aren’t just the reason for 99 wins so far. They are why Schaefer has a full squad of SEC title potential and Final Four ambitions. The coach is asking them to do more than score and rebound and defend and such.
“I told the seniors we’re going to do this eight more times, then we have a conference tournament. It’s coming down the stretch for those seniors so give me some leadership, some sense of urgency, hold people accountable. This is what happens this time of year. I’m hoping we’re going to continue to amp it up a notch because if you don’t somebody is going to jump up and get you.”
Of course that stat sheet is headed by a junior. Guard Victoria Vivians scored a 17th-straight double-digits game in the 77-47 win at Auburn, raising her to fifth in SEC scoring at 16.9 points. If that seems low for a leader, it reflects the better-balanced offense Schaefer has assembled.
Especially so in the post. The tag-team of senior Chinwe Okorie and sophomore Teaira McCowan have literally stood tall on offense in SEC season. They are shooting a combined 67% in league play, which is why Schaefer would like them to get more than just 13.3 combined shots per game.
But this would also take the ball out of hot guard Dominque Dillingham’s hands. Always known for defense and grit, the senior has found the long-range with 57% outside shooting the last five games. Point guard Morgan William has been more consistent all season and added to her three-pointers total at Auburn while keeping up a 6.2-assists average.
And keeping something of a low profile, senior forward Breanna Richardson has quietly glued the gang together working inside and outside as necessary. The real challenge for Schaefer is still how and when to make use of a gifted bench with shooters/scorers Roshunda Johnson and Jazzmun Holmes working the backcourt and old hand Ketara Chapel on the baseline.
Keeping an edge is always tricky. Schaefer does it with video study of weaknesses, which this team has had. Such as an Auburn game that was closer than the final score showed. The Bulldogs played good and often great defense, but offensive turnovers gave the host Tigers easy points. Schaefer also fumes over too many perimeter passes—something most of his peers beg for—and the offense slowing down for stretches as a result.
That these are the ‘problems’ State addresses is as fine a sign of how good the Bulldogs are even on average days. It does give motivation to improve, though.
“Just knowing we’re not perfect and we have things we need to work on, have better practices, and prepare better for games,” Schaefer said.
The Bulldogs stay home for a Thursday 8:00 game with Vanderbilt.