Not merely March, but the madness as Mississippi State begins its NCAA Tournament time. “I can’t tell you right now if we’re peaking,” Schaefer said Thursday. “I know this, we’ve played well all year long. To be 29-4, we’ve done a lot right.”
The Bulldogs did more than enough right this regular season to earn regional hosting rights again. The Starkville rounds tip off at 11:00am Friday with #7 regional seed DePaul and #10 Northern Iowa. At 1:30 Mississippi State, a #2 national seed, takes on #15 Troy. The winners advance to Sunday’s second round with time to be set.
This is the second year Humphrey Coliseum is hosting NCAA play. The novelty hasn’t worn-off for Bulldogs.
“It means a lot,” All-SEC guard Victoria Vivians said. “We did it last year for the first time. So to have it back-to-back means we’re doing something really well.”
Fans are doing their tasks very well, too. Despite the afternoon tipoff on top of spring school break, advance sales are surpassing 2016’s rate. Schaefer anticipates a healthy walk-up to fill in uncommitted seats.
“I guess you could say hosting back to back times, it’s expected for us now,” All-SEC guard Morgan William said. “We just have to go out there and handle business.”
It’s been back to business this week. Schaefer expected to host all along, and gave his squad a few days off after their runner-up finish at the SEC Tournament. So everyone is rested and an empty campus hasn’t hurt club concentration either.
“Hopefully we’ll play well,” said Schaefer. “We have an awfully good team in front of us in Troy, they have our attention and total respect.”
The Trojans (22-10) earned an automatic NCAA bid by winning the Sun Belt Conference tournament, after going 12-6 in their regular league play. They are a committed up-tempo type of team, scoring almost 83 points per game. And despite shooting under 40% overall Troy still out-scores opponents by eleven on average. Three Trojans score in double-digits.
However, the prospect of playing an up-tempo foe doesn’t frighten the Bulldogs. Just the opposite. “You’d better be careful if you want to play our team fast,” said Schaefer.
“We play fast, but we play fast and under control,” center Teaira McCowan said. “We can’t go in wanting to go at their pace, we have to go at our pace and not feed into what they’re doing.”
The Bulldogs don’t score at Troy’s pace but shoot much better at 45%, and have faced better defenses all winter. And while the Trojans do hit the glass hard they rarely have contended with posts like starting center Chinwe Okorie (7.8ppg, 5.5rpg) and McCowan (8.2, 6.6). The latter is the SEC’s Sixth Woman of the Year in fact, reinforcing Schaefer’s choice to alternate his centers over a twin-tower tactic.
Point guard William earned all-conference and Naismith watch-list stature by upping her offense to 10.6 points, while still handing out 151 assists. She, for one, wouldn’t mind an end-to-end matchup Friday.
“We can play at a fast pace. But you have to play under control and make good decisions.”
William usually does make good offensive decisions about who to get the ball to, when and where. The best choice statistically is Vivians of course, at 16.4 points-per with 104 treys. She is a Naismith semifinalist as a junior and has won the state’s top collegiate player award three-years running.
But…State’s star has slumped at times, and in three SEC Tournament games scored a total 24 points on 8-of-30 shooting. To her credit Vivians has raised her defensive game all semester and contributes more assists than the previous two years.
Still the Bulldog offense is at its most explosive when Vivians is knocking down shots from any distance. Schaefer agrees the junior has been missing looks that were going down earlier in the year, “But kids go through this.” A couple of off-days seem to have done Vivians good, and the coach reports good practices this week.
“She’s made shots. I have confidence when the lights come on she’ll play well. And she usually does.”
The spotlights are certainly on now, not least for the four senior Dogs who have been the transformative class in Ladydog history. Guard Dominique Dillingham, forwards Breanna Richarson and Ketara Chapel, and Okorie have been parts of a program-record 106 victories by a four-season class.
After debuting with a WNIT quarterfinals team in 2014 the seniors are making a third-straight NCAA Tournament appearance. They won the Starkville regional last year, too, advancing to the Sweet 16. Now they and the underclassmen varsity have greater ambitions.
Schaefer doesn’t see these veterans taking too much for granted about another year hosting, fortunately.
“Any time you have a four-senior team they handle things differently. I’ve not seen this team too giddy after wins, they bounce back after losses. They’ve been pretty even-keeled all year.” A year that now can end in any game, any round.
“I’m looking forward to playing hard, playing together, and coming out with a win,” Vivians said. “And having a great crowd.”