Greater things than Richard and the 11 other letter-winners on this roster achieved last season, when the Ladydogs went 18-14, 7-7 SEC, and played two games into the Women's NIT. Of course there was a time when a winning record, breaking even in the league, and any post-season play would have made for an all-time sort of season. Not now. Not this ball club.
"We're starting back where we left off," said forward/center Imesia Jackson, the leader among three double-digit scorers back for another season together.
It's a good starting-point to say the least. Every player who started a game last winter is back, as are the top eight scorers and rebounders. So the Bulldogs should hit the court this evening with the lineup and rotations set, right? Wrong.
"I couldn't pick a starting lineup today except Marneshia at one and Imesia inside," Fanning said. And the coach likes it this way, at least for the few week or so as it should keep the veterans on their toes and have the new arrivals eager to grab their own places in the gameplans.
We can take the nucleus of last year and build on that," said Fanning. "Finding the combinations right now is really important. But the good thing is to have that competition."
Still there are two jobs not likely to change hands. Richard blossomed as a point guard last year, with 125 assists and 72 steals. But this junior can score the ball herself and put in 10.3 points per game and hit 41% from the trey-arc. She was part of a productive tandem with Jackson, a 12.3 point scorer and 51% shooter in the post. And a quarter of her points came at the foul line.
It's finding the right combos to match with these leaders that will make this an intense pre-season. Richard got many of her assists by pitching to Alexis Rack and the guard threw in 64 treys for a 10.3 point average. Fanning praises the sophomore's mental toughness and says Rack can play both off- and point-guard now. Why move a proven gunner? Because a prep shooting-star is now on the roster in Mary Kathryn Govero, the all-time high school scoring leader in Mississippi.
Fanning also wants to give Jackson some help on the baseline. Forwards Bethany Washington and Tysheka Grimes were parts of the impressive freshman class of last winter and made their contributions. Grimes was more of the small forward type and a 8.0 point scorer, while Washington worked closer to the basket and hit the glass for a team-best 7.1 rebounds. Yet their jobs are not secure as sophomores because State has brought in a trio of bigger bodies. Actually 6-2 transfer Donnisha Tate was already here and sitting out the season with injury. "She's going to push some people," Fanning said.
As will freshmen 6-3 Danielle Rector and 6-2 Shai Wilkins. All are taller than the 6-1 Jackson and give State size this roster hasn't had for too long. Talent, too, the coach believes. "The new kids can contribute. All of them will make us better in the post."
That's a priority if Mississippi State is to progress from the WNIT to the NCAA. The Bulldogs rebounded reasonably well with a small lineup last year but Fanning wants a much larger margin on the boards this time around. In the backcourt the goal is, as always, improving the assist/turnover rate. It needs upgrading as the Dogs lost the ball 613 times last year against 418 scoring passes.
"If we get better there and rebound the ball, that gives us more opportunities to shoot the ball," Fanning said. And the coach thinks her 13th Bulldog team has the firepower to score more than 68 points per contest. Not to mention a healthy degree of experience that should make this preseason more productive. "That experience is good for us because we learned each other and got used to each other," said Rack. "We gained a lot of confidence."
"We had a great off-season and we've improved," Jackson said. "We look forward to having a great year this year."
The Lady Bulldogs will have an exhibition game with DT3 on Sunday, November 4, before opening the season on the 9th against Southeastern Louisiana.