August 29, 2009 11:35:00 PM
Adam Minichino - firstname.lastname@example.org
The challenge has been set for the Mississippi State women''s basketball team.
Now coach Sharon Fanning-Otis wants the Lady Bulldogs to go from earning "good" wins to chalking up "great" ones.
The team''s 2009-10 schedule, which was released Friday morning, should afford MSU plenty of chances to earn the signatures victories that allow teams to secure postseason bids.
MSU, which is coming off a second-round loss in the NCAA tournament last season, will play 13 teams that competed in the 2009 NCAA tournament.
The Lady Bulldogs also will play 16 home games, including eight home Southeastern Conference, in what could be one of the program''s toughest schedules.
Fanning-Otis wouldn''t have it any other way, especially with a team that returns five players (four seniors) who started at least 10 of the team''s 33 games last season.
"It is definitely an early challenge, and it is a schedule that helps us prepare for our next step," Fanning-Otis said. "We have seen how hard we need to play to be successful, and we were able to move up in the league (8-6 record, sixth-place finish), and we had what I think was our best NCAA tournament that we have ever had."
MSU (23-10) had a few anxious moments on NCAA tournament selection day before it earned a No. 11 seed. The bid marked the first time the Lady Bulldogs advanced to the NCAA tournament since the 2002-03 season.
MSU didn''t disappoint.
The Lady Bulldogs defeated No. 6 seed Texas 71-63 and then lost to No. 3 seed Ohio State 64-58 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
The defeat capped a campaign in which MSU recorded the third most victories in a season.
The return of senior guard Alexis Rack, a first-team All-SEC pick, and classmates Armelie Lumanu and Chanel Mokango, members of the All-SEC Defensive Team, and Tysheka Grimes, who started 10 games last season, gives the Lady Bulldogs the experience they will need to compete in the SEC.
MSU also figures to have plenty of backcourt depth with the expected return of senior Marneshia Richard (missed all of 2008-09 with a knee injury), junior Mary Kathryn Govero, and sophomore Diamber Johnson.
The 2009-10 season will be the first in which the SEC women''s teams will play a 16-game league schedule.
MSU will kick off the season Nov. 8 with an exhibition contest against Monticello. The Lady Bulldogs will open the regular season with home games against Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Nov. 13), East Tennessee State (Nov. 15), Utah Valley (Nov. 18), and Atlantic Coast Conference powerhouse Maryland (Aug. 22).
MSU will play Nov. 26-28 in the Paradise Jam Tournament in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. The Lady Bulldogs will face Texas, Rutgers, and Southern California.
Rutgers played in the NCAA tournament a year ago.
The non-conference schedule also includes games against Southern Mississippi (home, Dec. 2), at Louisiana Tech (Dec. 12), against Samford (home, Dec. 14), against Mississippi Valley (home, Dec. 16), at Atlantic-10 defending champion Xavier (Dec. 20), and against Alcorn State (home, Dec. 30).
Fanning-Otis said she and her coaching staff assembled the schedule knowing they would have an experienced team that should be up to the challenge of facing so many tests.
"The reason we got into the NCAA tournament last year was we were a consistent team relative to our wins," Fanning-Otis said. "We didn''t have any bad losses. This year we need some great wins. We don''t need to be waiting to see if we get into the NCAA tournament. We should be anticipating a seed in the tournament."
Fanning knows, though, that expectations come with experience. She said the players have to guard against thinking they will be able to win games based on what they did last year.
MSU will open its 16-game SEC schedule when it travels to Auburn to face the defending SEC Champions on Jan. 3.
Marquee games on the SEC slate include a home game against Tennessee (Jan. 10), at Ole Miss (Jan. 21), and at home against Ole Miss (Feb. 14) and Auburn (Feb. 21).
The SEC Women''s Basketball Tournament will be March 4-7 at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga.
Game times will be released at a later date.
n Fanning-Otis said the players are participating in individual workouts in preparation for the start of practice Oct. 16.
She said the players will work in groups of four and then will move into groups of eight for about a week. She said the team will close with a pair of two-hour sessions.
Fanning-Otis also reported strong showings in the team''s recent conditioning run. She said six or seven players made the time goal, which is more than past seasons.
She said senior forward Bethany Washington and senior center Rima Kalonda didn''t participate because they are still recovering from surgery in the spring.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.