The Lady Bulldogs are in their third week of practice. Has this team lived up to the coach's expectations for improvement to this point in the season?
"I'm disappointed this last week with the consistency of our practices," Fanning admitted. "It is hard for young players to understand how physical the game is. I realize that the third and fourth week of practice are tough times. It wears on them physically. We keep adding things during each practice. They have multiple things to think about now. Also, they just went through their midterms. We're staying on them hard but we realize that we also have to back off just a little bit so they can come up for air. We're making progress, but we have a lot to learn like playing through mistakes and playing physical while emphasizing the fundamentals of the game."
This year the Lady Bulldogs have one senior, three juniors, five sophomores and six freshmen. One of the juniors transferred to Mississippi State from junior college. That means nearly half of Fanning's team has never played in an SEC game. Does that mean it will be another long and forgettable season for State?
"Last year Maryland won a national championship with young players," Fanning said rather emphatically. "I remind our players about that every day. You find things that are similar to our situation and use it for motivation. We just have to compete. All the players on our team have been successful. We were disappointed last year. We had 16 teams on our schedule last year that played in the postseason. We played a lot of games on the road. We had inconsistency in our rotation due to injuries. The new players are learning but we can only simulate so much in practice."
One of the new faces will not be on the floor, but rather on the bench. During the off-season Fanning hired one of her former player - Nitra Perry - as an assistant coach. Perry lettered at MSU from 1996-2000 during which time she earned all-SEC honorable mention accolades by the Associated Press in 1999 and 2000 and SEC Academic Honor Roll and SEC All-Tournament honors in 2000. For the past three seasons, Perry was a graduate assistant at Georgia Tech, while also playing professionally in Europe.
"Nitra is one of the fiercest competitors and toughest players that I've ever coached," Fanning said. "She wants to win. I've been surprised at how ready she is to coach. She's creative. She coaches the game the way she played it - one play ahead. She recognizes things on the court that needs to be done. She is a valuable part of our planning and teaching. She made a quick transition and fits in really well. Being a younger coach, she can also relate to the players better, too."
Unfortunately for Fanning, Perry does not have any eligibility remaining. The good news is that sophomore guard/forward Robin Porter does. She started in all 28 games last year, averaging a team-high 30 minutes per game, and led the Lady Bulldogs is scoring (10.6 points per game) and rebounding (6 rebounds per game). Porter ranked among the top ten all-time MSU freshmen in scoring, rebounding, steals, and blocked shots. For that, she earned SEC All-Freshman Team honors.
"Robin is one of our best rebounders and scorers. She is communicating better. She's in a leadership role because of her success. She will make a difference in this year's team."
Marneshia Richard started 17 of the 28 games as the Lady Bulldogs point guard. She averaged nearly 24 minutes per game, 4.6 points per game that included shooting 52.9 percent from behind the three-point line and 54.3 percent from the free throw line.
"Marneshia is communicating louder and that is where it all begins. She is more aggressive and that sets an example to the rest of the team."
Heather Hollis is a purebred Bulldog. Her parents are both MSU alumni. Her effectiveness last season was impaired by an ankle injury that required surgery. Still she started 18 games but averaged just eight minutes per game as a guard.
"She couldn't cut or run most of the summer," Fanning reported. "She still was not 100 percent when we started practice. But she is gaining some strength and confidence. She feels better about herself. She has no problem with the straight up and down stuff; it's the lateral things that bothered her. She's getting that back. I've seen her confidence improving. There is one thing however; she is still not shy about shooting the basketball. She's sitting on 'G' and waiting on 'O.' "
While there are some familiar faces in significant roles, Fanning expects at least two or three newcomers will start, plus another two or three to have a significant role on the team.
"Alexis Rack is going to be a tremendous point guard for us," Fanning said. "We know she is going to get checked and checked hard after she makes a couple of buckets or dishes out a couple of assists. So mental toughness and endurance will challenge her early. But she competes, learns quickly and will be a scoring point guard."
Rack was 'Miss Basketball of Louisiana' her senior year, averaging a double-double, with 25 points and 10 assists per game as the co-captain of Franklin High School.
Another Louisiana native that Fanning expects to be a factor is forward Tysheka Grimes, who led Capitol High School in Baton Rouge to consecutive state championships the last two years. Grimes averaged a double-double last year (15 points and 12 rebounds per game) to earn a nomination as a McDonald's all-American and a place on the Baton Rouge Advocate's Star of Stars.
"Ty has a mean streak, and that's good," Fanning said. "She likes to compete. She asks a lot of intelligent questions and has a great personality. She and Alexis competed against each other in the state finals last year. So competing is nothing new for either of them."
Another young pup to watch also calls Louisiana home. Forward Bethany Washington averaged 13.3 points and 8.7 rebounds a game at Vandebilt Catholic HS in Houma, La.
"Even though Alexis and Ty are more vocal, Bethany may be our best athlete," Fanning said. "Once she becomes aggressive and more competitive, she'll be hard to guard. She understands the game fundamentally. That helped her adjust to this level."
Fanning recognized the need for Mississippi State to improve their post play. To that end she recruited Imesia Jackson from nearby Crawford, Mississippi. Jackson spent two years at Southwest Tennessee Community College where she earned National Junior College Athletic Association Honorable Mention all-America as a sophomore by virtue of scoring 18.9 points and 12.0 rebounds per game.
"If we played a game tomorrow, Imesia would start in the post," Fanning confirmed. "She wants the basketball. She's quick around the rim. Hopefully she'll also be able to get to the free throw line. She has to learn to play against double-teams and that takes patience. She is one of our best leaders and hardest workers. She will definitely be on the floor."
Two other freshmen that could see some playing time in the post during their freshman campaign are Katherine Young from Cass-Tech High School in Redford, Michigan and Channa Campbell from West Limestone High School in Lester, Alabama.
"Kat tweaked her knee but that is something she has to learn to deal with," Fanning said. "She is a physical player. She doesn't mind contact. She needs to improve her transition game but she will be an important part to our team. Channa can shoot but I'm not sure right now about her mobility in the post. I don't know how much time either of them will get because we'll use different combinations but both will figure into our plans."
The Lady Bulldogs have a closed scrimmage on Sunday, before beginning their final week of practice in preparation for their first exhibition game on Monday, November 6th against the Houston Jaguars.
Andy Kalinowski, known on the internet as Andy K, writes about Mississippi State women's basketball for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.