“The success you’re evaluated on is what you do in post-season,” Coach Vic Schaefer said. “For us from day-one this is what was expected.”
‘This’ being a Mississippi State return to the NCAA Tournament’s round of 16. The Lady Bulldogs did it a year ago, and now have achieved it again. ‘This’ is not enough now, though. These Bulldogs will only consider March 2017 a success by going farther.
“Anything short of that…” said Schaefer.
Going longer means Mississippi State must get past Friday’s sweet 16 round matchup with Washington, in the Oklahoma City Regional, at 6:00ct. The Bulldogs (31-4) are seeded second and coming off decisive victories on their home court over Troy and DePaul. This is the program’s third sweet 16 appearance along with the highest overall national seeding.
But Washington (29-5) is essentially an equal opponent, a #3 seed and seasoned by battling through a quality conference schedule of their own. The programs have never managed to meet in four decades. For that matter Mississippi State has never played a game in the state of Oklahoma.
And no Bulldog team has faced the NCAA scoring champion. State will Friday in Huskie guard Kelsey Plum, she of the 32-point average and the collegiate career record. Combine that with this season’s rebounding leader, center Chantel Osahor (15.4rpg, 15.8ppg) and this has to be the best inside-outside combo these Bulldogs could see.
They also have a lineup that does much more than just support the stars, with capable scorers and rebounders and defenders in their own rights. “We have a formidable and outstanding opponent in Washington,” Schaefer said. Yes, the coach added, “This time of year everybody is good.”
The Huskies are very, very good and at one time were in line for a #1 seeding. They did host the first two NCAA rounds as did State, beating Montana State and Oklahoma. Now they meet up on neutral ground.
If the teams are officially strangers…the coaches are not. Schaefer and Mike Neighbors were on the same Arkansas staff under Gary Blair. State’s coach said the Huskie mentor is one of his handful of instant-access friends in the business, to compare ideas and notes.
Now they compare their teams in an all-or-nothing NCAA game. Both squads arrive not just after two strong wins but with red-hot offenses. The Bulldogs scored 202 points over the weekend; Washington nearly matched it at 199. Schaefer said in beating Oklahoma the Huskies seemed to be playing horse. “If you’re not guarding somebody you’re going to pay the price.”
The same sort of challenge confronts Washington now. State might even be a bigger challenge to scout than before, because Schaefer has revamped his lineup. Radically.
The fifth-year coach took a team which had already set a season record for victories, and changed four starters (see Monday feature on offense for specifics). A radical move to all but the coach, it obviously worked very well and certainly improved the shooting and scoring. Yet, at no cost to the defensive effort or efficiency.
Though in at least one position the change was made for purely tactical reasons, going with younger, taller post Teaira McCowan and bringing senior Chinwe Okorie off the bench, Schaefer did this for larger purposes. “You want to be playing your best, and you want to keep an edge.” An internal edge, he meant, reminding the whole roster nobody is guaranteed a job or minutes.
This would have been risky with any other team, probably even last year’s State squad. Schaefer was confident this 2017 club would understand, accept, and not miss a beat. “Our kids are just hey, this is the way it is, be ready.” Besides, the coach noted, the usual bench has done its job all year.
“Now it’s a little flip-flopped and everybody thinks it’s a big deal. It’s really not. They’re still probably playing the same amount of minutes, just in a little different start.”
Yet Schaefer also says if the matchup suits things, and players merit it, he wouldn’t hesitate to go to a third lineup, or back to the original fivesome, or whatever. Where just about any other team still going in the NCAAs has set roles and established rotations…here is Mississippi State keeping the competition going internally at sweet 16 time.
Oh, and keeping Washington guessing.
“That’s the thing that’s keeping people off-balance,” said Schaefer. “I can go to two different philosophies, with a little cross-over. The constant is my five players. And my point guards have been really good.” Morgan William has been good enough to earn a place on watch lists for the Naismith and Staley awards. A thumb problem limited her Sunday time but Jazzmun Holmes was special in her place at point.
It certainly caught attention when Schaefer kept Naismith, Wade, and Wooden awards nominee and leading scorer Victoria Vivians in reserve both games. If this stung the player’s pride it did nothing to hurt her game as Vivians kept up the double-digit points pace and defended harder than ever.
Schaefer still believes too much is made of a post-season lineup shakeup. What it shows isn’t coaching as much as club chemistry. “The toughness, togetherness, bonding,” he said. In fact Schaefer’s real concern is that this team is so focused on business they aren’t enjoying the journey.
But, then, this is the mark of a Bulldog bunch that has experienced success. And, the sweet 16 trip, too. That new is worn off so Mississippi State plays now for a new new. “And we have a really good team,” the coach said.
“If I’m doing my job right, we’re playing to the first of April.”