Sharon Fanning faced a daunting challenge when she accepted the head coaching position at Mississippi State University in 1995. In the 21 years prior to her arrival, the Lady Bulldogs had managed only 7 winning seasons, with a cumulated SEC record of 16-106. A stunning early season upset of Vanderbilt in the fall of 1998 was the first sign that Coach Fanning's rebuilding efforts were finally paying off. Afterwards, the Lady Bulldogs went on to compile their best season in program history with a 17-11 overall record (7-7 SEC), earning their first ever trip to the NCAA tournament. The following year, bolstered by the arrival of All-American LaToya Thomas, they continued to improve, posting a 24-8 overall record and their first ever winning record in the SEC at 8-6. However, after the previous year's success, last year proved to be a disappointment, despite Thomas's glittering statistics. The Lady Bulldogs fell to 17-14 overall but fell to 10th in the SEC, with a 4-10 conference record. Instead of a third consecutive trip to the NCAAs, they lost in the quarterfinals of the WNIT.
Players Returning: The Lady Bulldogs return three starters -- junior forward/center LaToya Thomas (23.6 ppg, 8.5 rpg), senior forward Jennifer Fambrough (14.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg), and sophomore forward Dana Benemon (4.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg). While the Lady Bulldogs' frontcourt is solid, SU loses both of their starting guards. Their only returning guard averaging more than 10 minutes of playing time is sophomore Jessica Carter (13.3 mpg, 4.5 ppg, .396 3pt%). Swing players Keisha Stringfellow (24.3 mpg, 4.0 ppg) and Seneca Anderson (10.1 mpg, 2.9 ppg) may help out in the backcourt.
Incoming Players: Coach Fanning's recruiting class addresses the Lady Bulldogs' glaring vacanies in the backcourt. Out of 6 players coming in, five are guards. The class includes two point guards and three shooting guards. The point guards are 5'7 junior college transfer Daphne Renea Jones (18 ppg) who was a third team JC All-American, and 5-7 Doceide Warren (17 ppg) from Mesquite, Texas. The shooting guards include Nashville's 5'8 Tiania Burns (28 ppg, 9 rpg, 3 apg, 4 spg), 5'7 Ebonie Ferguson (21 ppg, 8 rpg), and 5'8 Tan White (24 ppg, 8 rpg, 6 apg, 3 bpg), a Fourth Team Parade All-American. the final member of the class is 6'1 forward Rebecca Kates (19 ppg, 12 rpg) from Cashion, Oklahoma.
Outlook: With Thomas and Fambrough, the Lady Bulldogs are very solid in the post. The backcourt is the big question mark, especially the point guard position. If Jones or Warren adjust quickly to D1 basketball, and if any of the four contenders for the starting shooting guard position can produce with some consistency, Mississippi State has a good shot of climbing back to the upper middle of the SEC pack and returning to the NCAAs. If not, Thomas and Fambrough alone aren't enough, and MSU will probably have to settle for another trip to the WNIT.