“What’s done is done,” the Ladydog coach said. “It’s in the past. We’ve got two new seasons in front of us and one of them is this weekend.”
Those seasons Schaefer speaks of are actually tournaments. And one is indeed directly ahead as Mississippi State (27-3) is in Greenville, S.C., for the SEC’s annual event. The Bulldogs are automatically in the quarterfinals by virtue of their second-place SEC finish. There they await Louisiana State for Friday’s early-evening game, tentatively tipping at 5:00ct.
7th-seed LSU defeated #10 Ole Miss on Thursday evening and are now 20-10
This is the second year State has gone to the SECT as the second seed. The 2016 Dogs finished even with Tennessee but held the tiebreak and earned a highest-ever seeding for the event. State beat Vanderbilt and Tennessee again to reach the finals where they lost to regular-season champs South Carolina.
Fast-forward to this March and again the Bulldogs trail South Carolina in the final standings. This time, by just one game. With two chances last week to lock up a share of their first-ever conference championship State stumbled at Kentucky; then was blown out by Tennessee. On Senior Day, no less.
A couple days afterwards the strains still showed. “We have to move on,” said Schaefer, adding “Sometimes it’s harder for me.” At the same time the fifth-year coach expresses confidence this veteran team has handled their last week of a long regular season with more poise and less pain.
Though, “You can tell we’ve lost two games in a row,” all-star guard Victoria Vivians said. “It hasn’t been too pleasant.” Fortunately a couple of days away from the court and even each other has hopefully helped rejuvenate the Bulldogs for this first tournament.
“It’s an exciting time of the year,” Schaefer said. “You take one at a time, and Friday we’ll be ready.”
Ironically Mississippi State opened its SEC season against the Tigers, and on New Years Day no less. They out-scored LSU in all four quarters for a 74-48 final, and as well-rounded a performance as would be seen all season. Certainly Vivians enjoyed the day with a 24-point, 12-rebound show. Center Chinwe Okorie dominated inside with 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting.
LSU has played better ball since then, and even with three losses in their last five regular-season games the Tigers were never more than five points behind at the buzzer. Guard Raigyne Moncrief practically carries the team, leading in scoring, rebounds, assists, steals, and yes even blocks at 5-10. As a team though this group is only 12th in SEC season scoring and 13th in rebounding, reflecting size and depth challenges.
The winner will meet Friday’s late-game survivor on Saturday. All of the three SEC teams which gave State a loss this season are in the other bracket. And of course the Dogs will be well-rested physically by sitting out two rounds as #2 seed.
“That double-bye can be really important,” Schaefer said. “It’s put us in a really good position.”
Reaching Sunday’s finals would be a Bulldog priority in any situation. Nor need SEC Tourney participants worry about wearying themselves. There is a dead week between this tournament and the NCAA Tournament with selections, seedings, and sitings announced March 13.
Yet there is a bit more emphasis on not just making the SEC finals this year but winning it all. It’s that two-season situation Schaefer speaks of, and how this week factors into March madness and gladness.
Before the two late losses the Bulldogs reached #2 in the NCAA’s own official RPI list. They have only fallen to #5, and nothing can happen in Greenville to prevent Mississippi State from hosting first weekend regional play in Humphrey Coliseum again. Yet, the ambition was to be among the four #1 seeds.
That status would mean Mississippi State, assuming they win twice in Humphrey Coliseum on the first NCAA weekend, would go to one of three Sweet 16 regional rounds the top seed. Three, because barring the unthinkable Connecticut will be #1 both overall and in the Bridgeport regional.
So State wants to be first somewhere, and the higher the #1 the more likely the Dogs can be assigned to either the Lexington (about 500 driving miles) or Oklahoma City (about 680) regionals in weekend-two. However bitter the experiences have been with the local team of late, Mississippi State would naturally prefer the more familiar SEC site for themselves and for fans.
Winning in Greenville would likely do the trick…because South Carolina is third in the latest RPI rankings. Or State could still hope to reach the finals and have fourth-RPI Baylor lose in their league tournament.
Or, the Bulldogs might still struggle with late-February issues which made their wins tighter than necessary and finally knocked them out of title contention. This still stings, Schaefer said.
Yet if anything can ease such sting it is winning the other SEC title…and rebuilding momentum for the biggest prize of all. Besides, “If you can win this one you can win the next one in my opinion,” Schaefer said.
Looking a little ahead to the NCAAs, the Bulldogs invested this week more on their own technical issues than scouting SEC possibilities. Fundamentals, as Schaefer called it, things which cost points and stops down the regular season stretch.
“We don’t have anything that’s terminal,” Schaefer said. Plus, one of the bright spots in Sunday’s loss was the return—and how—of guard Roshunda Johnson after weeks of dealing with a shoulder problem and family concerns. It means Mississippi State goes to Greenville with a complete roster, at last.
“I have a lot of confidence in this group. I feel we’re going to bounce back,” Schaefer said.