Women's Hoops Scouting Report: Miss. State

Sunday afternoon's game for the Vanderbilt women's basketball team can either be looked at as a perfect opportunity or a perfectly awful matchup... or both. It's really up to the Commodores themselves to the define the day and leave the right kind of imprint upon it. Can this struggling team find a powerful moment of inspiration in Memorial Gym?


The Vanderbilt Commodores, desperate for an SEC win on the second weekend of January, have arrived at the kind of moment that can so easily lead to multiplied anxieties and redoubled doubts… but which can also create a season-changing transformation if handled in the right way. The Mississippi State Bulldogs are not a traditional SEC power, which could on one hand discourage Vanderbilt, given the Dores’ considerable women’s basketball pedigree. VU could look at its guests from Starkville and lament, “Why aren’t we in your position, Bulldogs? Why isn’t it us? Why are you making this climb instead?” Then again, Vanderbilt’s players can choose to view Mississippi State as an example of how to write a new story after struggling in the past.

We’ll explain that last statement below:

MISSISSIPPI STATE AT-A-GLANCE

The Bulldogs do not have a rich women’s basketball heritage the way Vanderbilt does. Mississippi State has made the Sweet 16 only once, and has never won a Sweet 16 game in its history. The Bulldogs didn’t make the NCAA tournament until 1999, and they’ve made only two return visits since 2003. Their last trip came in 2010. To be 18-0 overall and 3-0 in the SEC rates as quite an accomplishment for this roster, put together and molded by coach Vic Schaefer, who has been on the job in Starkville since 2012. This is what’s meant by writing a new story after enduring difficult times in the recent past.

It’s really rather amazing to not only behold the fact that Mississippi State is 18-0, but to realize how the Bulldogs are doing it. This has quickly become a terrific lockdown team at the defensive end of the floor.

Consider this whopping fact: Since Nov. 23 – that’s seven weeks ago – Mississippi State has allowed more than 58 points exactly once, on Dec. 11. The Bulldogs haven’t allowed beyond that number in exactly one month, as a result. It’s staggering on one level, but when you stop and think about the matter, it only makes sense that a team would rise from obscurity on the basis of its hustle, work ethic, and various intangible qualities. This is not a team carried by one or two superstars, but with balance and quality depth – everyone pitches in for MSU. Vanderbilt might be (rightly) upset with the progression of its own season, but if it can learn from the Bulldogs’ example… enough to bump them off on Sunday afternoon… the Commodores could find the spark that will turn around their campaign and give coach Melanie Balcomb a true rallying point in what has started out as a brutal month of January.

Starting Lineup

Center – Chinwe Okorie –
Sophomore, 6-5; 2014-15: 5.1 points per game, 5.8 rebounds per game

We really mean it when we say that everyone contributes on this roster. Accordingly, don’t get too caught up in differentiating between the starting five and the bench. In MSU’s most recent game, a 72-57 win over Arkansas on Thursday, the starting five played 105 minutes and scored 33 points, 21 of them by only one player. The bench played 95 minutes (five players playing 40 minutes equates to 200 total minutes, so each team will compile 200 minutes of individual game play in some combination or another). In those 95 minutes, the bench scored 39 points.

Okorie fits into Mississippi State in that she doesn’t fit into a neat category. Though a starter against Arkansas, she received bench-level minutes (12) and scored 0 points, picking up four fouls. If she’s rebounding and defending, she’s giving MSU what it needs.

Forward – Ketara Chapel – Sophomore, 6-1; 2014-15: 7 ppg, 3.8 rpg

Chapel played a modest 16 minutes (despite being a starter) against Arkansas. Keep in mind that when you look at the statistical averages of MSU’s players, they’re per-game averages. The per-40-minute averages would look very different, since the minutes are so widely distributed on this team. Viewing the Bulldogs through the prism of per-40-minute totals makes you appreciate how good this team really is, or at least, how good it can ultimately become.

Forward – Victoria Vivians – Freshman, 6-1; 2014-15: 15.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg

If there is a star on the Bulldogs, this is the one. A child shall lead them – a freshman is by far the best scorer on the Mississippi State roster, with a rebounding average that’s just two-tenths of a board lower than the leader on the team. Vivians doesn’t shoot terrifically well – just under 33 percent from three-point range, and just under 42 percent from two-point range – but she balances her two-point and three-point attempts to increase her effective field goal percentage. She gets points from the foul line and the three-point arc to diversify her portfolio. Her rebounding prowess helps her get easier buckets at times. Her ability to score and to impact a game in many different ways is really her foremost skill.

Guard – Dominique Dillingham – Sophomore, 5-9; 2014-15: 5.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.5 assists per game

Dillingham actually played starter-level minutes against Arkansas, logging 30 minutes and pulling down 7 rebounds and 5 steals. Dillingham’s performance was a quintessential Mississippi State performance in 2015 – not very sexy, but extremely resourceful and central to knitting together the team at the defensive end of the floor, where it doesn’t allow opponents to breathe. When 5-9 sophomores are attacking the glass and swiping five steals, you begin to get a feel for how this team works its magic.

Guard – Jerica James – Senior, 5-5; 2014-15: 5.6 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 3.1 apg

James played 22 minutes against Arkansas. She is the second-best assist provider on the MSU roster, so Vanderbilt will need to close off passing lanes when James has the ball. James’ unselfishness – and her ability to be effective despite her lack of height – is just one more foundational brick in the solid house MSU has built for itself so far this season.

Bench

Let’s give the names of MSU’s bench players in one group: Sherise Williams, Breanna Richardson, Martha Alwal, Kendra Grant, Savannah Carter, and Morgan William. Williams and Richardson are forwards, Alwal a backup center. Grant, Carter and William are the backup guards. All players but Sherise Williams played at least 10 minutes against Arkansas. Morgan William and Breanna Richardson scored 11 points apiece, with William adding 5 assists. Alwal blocked three shots. In looking at these players as a group, Morgan William (we’re using the full name to set her apart from Sherise Williams) is the standout, averaging 10.6 points and 3.8 assists per game, but every player in this bunch of six averages at least 3.1 points per game, and four of them average at least 6.2 points per game. Four players in this group average at least two rebounds per game. What any one individual lacks, the group compensates for. It’s a marvel to see how everyone on this team picks each other up.

Keys to the Game

1) Shoot with confidence.
It sounds stupid in a certain sense, but it really needs to be emphasized in this game. Vanderbilt has scored under 50 points in each of its last two games. Mississippi State is a hot team, but hot on defense in particular. It’s at that end of the floor where the Bulldogs are doing the bulk of their work, so Vanderbilt needs to set the tone for the game on offense. Shooting with confidence is an elusive, shape-shifting commodity. It comes and goes very easily. Players obviously need to demonstrate proper technique, but a core part of the art of shooting is believing that your shot’s going down in the first place. Without belief, shooters don’t shoot well. VU has to capture this and insist on making shots, regardless of what Mississippi State might try to do. Again, this sounds stupid, but it’s the best thing Melanie Balcomb can tell her players.

2) Keep Vivians and Richardson off the glass. These two sparkplugs for MSU both average at least 5.6 rebounds. Keeping them off the boards will help Vanderbilt to create a game in which it gets more possessions than the Bulldogs and can squeeze Mississippi State heading into crunch time.

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