January 8, 2014 10:12:04 PM
Adam Minichino - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- The "monster" has been as scary and as imposing as Vic Schaefer thought it would.
The second-year Mississippi State women's basketball coach used the word "monster" to describe the challenge his team would face as it prepared for the 16-game Southeastern Conference regular-season schedule. While the Bulldogs built confidence in their program-best 13-1 start, Schaefer knew bigger, badder, and bolder obstacles awaited them in league play.
Losses at Florida and at home against Auburn validated Schaefer's claim. Now the trick for MSU (13-3, 0-2 SEC) is to re-gain some of the confidence and momentum it lost in 10- and eight-point losses that dropped it to last in the SEC.
MSU returned to practice this week after a couple of days off following an 82-74 loss to Auburn on Sunday. It has a bye today and then two more days to prepare for another pivotal matchup at 2 p.m. Sunday at Arkansas. Picked to finish 11th in the preseason SEC poll, MSU will face an Arkansas team that is 14-1 and 1-1 in the SEC. The Razorbacks were picked 12th in the SEC preseason poll.
MSU's first two losses were doubly damaging because they came against teams that were behind it in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) last month. Through games played Dec. 19, MSU had a RPI of 52 compared to Florida (138) and Auburn (76), according to RealTime RPI. Following the losses, MSU slipped to 95 in the RPI and 213 in Strength of Schedule (SOS), while Auburn climbed to 39 and 83 and Florida rose to 90 and 198.
RPI and SOS are two guidelines the NCAA tournament selection committee uses in comparing teams to pick the at-large field for the annual event. While it might be premature to look at those numbers, they are valuable to monitor to gauge the Bulldogs' chances of earning a bid to a postseason tournament, which was one of the team's goals in the preseason.
To get there, MSU will have to come closer to delivering a 40-minute effort. Schaefer lamented the mistakes his team made in the final four-plus minutes of the first half and in the first five minutes of the second half. Lack of attention to detail in those stretches allowed Auburn to seize the momentum. Still, Schaefer found plenty of things to praise and to point to as building blocks.
"We got some things we have to fix and people are going to exploit, but at the end of the day we're a better basketball team," Schaefer said. "I don't think anybody in this room (the postgame interview area) doesn't think we are a better basketball team than we were at this time last year."
With three freshmen and one junior college transfer playing key minutes, Schaefer acknowledged the best barometer of his team's development might not be if it defeated Florida or Auburn. He believes the team will be a work in progress as it learns what it takes to compete in the SEC and how to play hard and efficiently for 40 minutes. That doesn't mean the Bulldogs are going to stop trying to get there sooner rather than later.
"At some point it has got to translate to wins," Schaefer said.
Schaefer said the ability of senior guard Katia May to regroup after a slow start against Auburn and to lead the team's second-half rally is one sign he wants the team to embrace. Schaefer said repeatedly Sunday he felt May "grew up a little bit" and adjusted to Auburn's pressure defense and made her share of plays down the stretch. He hopes the Bulldogs continue to learn how to play harder, smarter, and more together to avoid falling into periods when they are too loose with the basketball and make unforced mistakes.
"My big picture is the future of this program," Schaefer said. "All I know is the blueprint I have been a part of at Arkansas and at (Texas) A&M. I think the future of our program is very, very bright. These kids we have are competitors and they are all getting better. In February and March, I hope they are better. I tell them now they aren't freshmen anymore, you have played 16 games. The SEC will really exploit your freshmen. We had some no-brainer things with our freshmen (against Auburn), and that is going to happen. They are not going to learn unless you let them get in the fire and play. No. 1, we don't have anybody else, but No. 2 that is why recruited them. Now that it is here, it is our job to teach them as we go and realize they are freshmen. When they are juniors, we better not be having these issues, and I don't think we will."
Schaefer recalls the first teams he was a part of at Texas A&M. MSU assistant coach Aqua Franklin was a point guard on those teams that struggled and then helped lay the foundation for the Aggies to win a national championship in 2011. He recalls the first teams coach Gary Blair and he led at Texas A&M were horrible defensively. For a veteran coach who has earned the nickname "Secretary of Defense," that is a difficult subject, almost as challenging as it is for him to think about some of the things his current team does that drive him crazy. Just as his Texas A&M teams grew, though, Schaefer believes MSU's time will come. His goal is to make it happen this season and to leave 26-turnover games and 60-percent shooting efforts in the second half by the opponent, like what he saw against Auburn, in the past.
"It is not good. It is a real concern," Schaefer said of Auburn's shooting percentage in the second half and 51.8-percent performance for the game. "It is a formula, y'all. You just have to figure out what is best for your group."
"We have grown a whole lot since last year," May said. "Those are two different teams. We went to Florida and we didn't even come out and play good and we still lost by 10. If that was last year's team, I don't know how it would have went. We didn't have the scorers last year that we do this year. We have Dominique (Dillingham), Bre(anna Richardson), and Savannah (Carter) and we have Ketara (Chapel) coming off the bench. Everybody just contributes as a team. If we continue to play together and put two halves together from start to finish, I don't know where it could lead us. That is the scary part but the exciting part, too."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.