When the topic of Southeastern Conference women’s basketball surfaces, much oxygen is sucked up by the obvious powerhouse programs. And with four teams landing in the top 11 of the preseason AP Top 25, the SEC will be breathing down the necks of the competition all season.
But anybody looking to calm their heart rate against the next tier of SEC teams won’t get much solace when facing Mississippi State.
In fact, Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer isn’t in the mood to contemplate the distance between his program and the likes of South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Texas A&M, because he doesn’t see that much. Entering his third season, Schaefer believes he has the athletes and the game plan to guide MSU further up the food chain, even if other teams are seen as national heavyweights.
The numbers back him up in multiple ways. League matchups that once led to cavernous losses are starting to tip the other direction; highly ranked recruiting classes are adding significant depth to the roster; and Mississippi State has fully embraced the defense-first mindset that Schaefer employed to great effect as an assistant at Texas A&M – the Aggies won the NCAA championship in 2011.
“Obviously, our league is a nightmare. Everybody is good,” said Schaefer, whose team won three games in the postseason WNIT and finished 22-14 overall. “Last year was a turnaround – we beat Vanderbilt, which was a 57-point swing from the year before. We took Kentucky to overtime and should have won; we’ve beaten Georgia back-to-back seasons, so we’ve made big strides. Our recruiting has brought us players with a terrific skill set, and your confidence comes from your skill set.
“I’ve been our biggest cheerleader, because I think the kids deserve it. I believe we are a top 25 team, but now we have to go walk the walk.”
That all begins with defense, and teams are beginning to suspect a trip to the dentist might be more fun than trying to score on the Bulldogs. The opposition shot just barely above 40 percent last year from the field and averaged more than 21 turnovers per game – Schaefer said his squad didn’t have the right approach when he took over, but it’s starting to look more like the team in his mental blueprint.
“Our first year (2012-13), we beat Georgia with a bunch of inexperienced players, but we said we’ve got to change. If you’re going to stay here, this is the way we’re going to play,” Schaefer said. “Defense required a major overhaul. We brought in competitive kids, and we brought a change to the atmosphere. In Year 3 here, we feel pretty good about that.”
Another source of inspiration for this season comes from some of the near misses MSU experienced last year. Three losses came in overtime, and it took a hurried, harried shot at the end of the game for South Florida to eke past the Bulldogs in the quarterfinals of the postseason WNIT.
“The losses were really disappointing, but we were so close to beating a bunch of teams,” said 6-4 senior center Martha Alwal, who averaged almost 15 points and nine rebounds per game last year and is a first-team preseason all-SEC selection. “That loss in the WNIT was heartbreaking - that girl from South Florida hit that last-second shot, so good for her … we had some turnovers, were careless with the ball, but we’ve worked on it. Our coaches have talked about how every possession is so important, and I think about if I’d made one more shot, got one more rebound, or if we’d made one more play.”
“I wish we’d have won that 23rd game, and I would have loved the chance to play another couple of games,” Schaefer added. “There were a ton of games we could have won – we didn’t – and it could have been one of those special years.”
But even with those disappointments, Alwal could look in her heart and know the staff shift that brought Schaefer would work out.
“I’m really happy with the staff,” she said. “It was a huge change, and I was worried at the time. ‘He didn’t recruit me, so will I still play? Does he see anything in me?’ After that first year it was still a little shaky, but we talked a lot, and I bought into the system. Things have gone really well ever since; you just had to be accepting of them and their process.”
Three other seniors – Savannah Carter, Jerica James and Kendra Grant – have also figured out their roles in the transition, and Schaefer is very high on the group of five freshmen and four sophomores that needs to find that extra gear to do more than just stay afloat in the SEC. (One freshman to keep in mind right away is Victoria Vivians, who scored more than 5,100 points in her high school career.
The team as a whole probably needs to be more efficient on offense (barely 30 percent from 3-point range and just south of 40 percent overall from the field), but the Bulldogs consider that to be just another goal that will be scooped up along the way.
“People should be paying attention to us. We stuck close to a lot of great teams, and those weren’t huge losses like in other years,” Alwal added. “We’ve got a top-20 recruiting class, so people are sleeping on us, but that’s OK. Our sophomores played a lot of minutes last year and know what to do, and our freshmen are fearless. They aren’t afraid of the upperclassmen, and they compete hard every day. It can be a little tough, because they will make some freshmen mistakes, but we’ve got their backs.”
“That’s the challenge. We’ve got young kids who are very talented, and at the end of the day you’ve got to score points,” Schaefer said. “With the rules being what they are and how the game is officiated, the role of the offense is huge. This (freshman) class is really special, they’ve have a high motor, are very competitive, and they take a backseat to no one.”
Now the Bulldogs wait to see if they can find room in the front seat of the SEC.