#3-ranked Mississippi State opens the two-week, four-game end to their regular schedule Thursday by hosting Georgia (7:00ct, no TV). The home Bulldogs bring a 25-1 overall record and of more immediate importance a 11-1 SEC mark. Oh, as well as their highest-ever Associated Press ranking.
The ranking and other national factors will matter more in a month when the NCAA settled seedings and sitings. For now, Coach Vic Schaefer’s squad has sights set on a first-ever conference championship. The Bulldogs remain in an almost-dead-heat with #6-South Carolina, now 21-3 and 11-1 as well after their loss to top-ranked Connecticut.
That setback did nothing to damage the Gamecocks’ SEC status of course. They also have the tiebreak on State after their three-point win in January. South Carolina is hosting Vanderbilt tomorrow; with the rest of their slate at Missouri, at Texas A&M, and against Kentucky.
The remaining Bulldog opponents after Thursday is a touch tougher, with consecutive trips to #23-A&M on Sunday; then at Kentucky next Thursday; and closing out with a visit from Tennessee on February’s final Sunday. The time for that finale has not been set. The league’s TV partners want to see how the last day of the regular season sets up first.
Regardless, “Our schedule is very daunting down the stretch,” Schaefer said. “We have some really challenging games both at home and on the road.”
Georgia (13-12, 5-7) looks like the least-daunting of the quartet. A quick check of series history warns otherwise. It was the other Bulldogs who upset State in a glacial contest in Athens last year. And State’s Dogs had to scrap two years ago to win on the home court by eight.
“They’re playing well, they really present some problems for you,” said Schaefer. “I’m sure they’re confident going into the game knowing they held us to 43 points last year in a real ugly game.”
It was ugly indeed with the MSU Dogs shooting just 34%, bogged-down by Georgia’s full-time zone defense. Victoria Vivians had nine of State’s 17 field goals and needed 24 shots to get those. Schaefer doesn’t expect anything different from the opponents this time.
“They’re going to be all we want tomorrow night.”
However, this is a different Bulldog offense for 2017. Not a great offense at times; Schaefer’s squad can still have nights when making shots is such a low-percentage grind. But as the record shows Mississippi State has been able to grind out enough points on such days and nights to win all but once.
Part of this is not relying only on Vivians to score. The junior guard still sets the pace at 16.8 on the season, and 17.4 in league play. But several other Dogs are capable of taking up slack or just taking over games in their own right(s).
The center rotation of Chinwe Okorie and Teaira McCowan combine for 17 points-per overall, and in SEC action they are shooting 64% and 69%. Sophomore and second-center McCowan had lagged for a couple of games, with no points against Missouri and just four against Vanderbilt. But at Ole Miss, she took over with a 17-point performance on 7-of-11 shooting.
McCowan also muscled for 18 rebounds giving her first SEC double-double and second total. Okorie settled for six points on perfect shooting, showing how difficult defending the Dogs can be. This includes perimeter play as #2 point guard Jazzmun Holmes is no rest in rotation for opponents.
Though spelling a national all-star candidate in starting point Morgan William, Holmes has gotten the job done almost as well. This is Schaefer’s key to having a really strong club. Yes, all the seniors and juniors are who got State to this point.
“But those two sophomores have really allowed us to become a lot better, they gives us depth at critical positions. What Teaira and Jazz are doing off the bench right now is paramount to our success.”
So is defense. Schaefer keeps pressing his club to be better on D, and results are showing. In each of the last three matchups State has held the victim to season-lows for field goal shooting. For the season as a whole the Bulldogs rank #2 nationally in three-point shooting defense, too. Though, Georgia’s preference is to go inside so that might not matter so much.
The visitors like to play a big game, which before McCowan emerged would have been a greater concern. Now State should be more confident muscling-up with Georgia and with the depth to handle some whistles unlike before.
A State success will set a new standard for SEC victories. This team is already third in season wins, and last year’s record of 28 is within regular-season reach. Getting there before tournament time won’t be easy at all, but then Schaefer says this is not a finished product either.
“We can get so much better. Our top end is a long way away.”