March 29, 2014 11:26:27 PM
Adam Minichino - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Jerica James is happy to be ahead of the curve.
In her first two seasons as a member of the Mississippi State women's basketball team, James was already looking ahead to the next season on March 30.
A year ago, MSU showed flashes of potential in coming around to Vic Schaefer's style of play and defensive system, but its inexperience played a key part in a 13-17 finish.
This season, the flashes have come more often and consistently enough to push MSU back to the postseason for the first time since the 2009-10 season. When asked Friday to talk about the program's growth this season, James couldn't help but admit the Bulldogs' growth has been surprising.
"It came quick. It actually came sooner than I thought," James said. "Them coming in as a new staff and with new players they had to mix with (the returners), I was thinking it was going to take a couple of years. Obviously, we are in year two now and we have reached the expectations we had at the beginning of the season. The growth of the program is on a great start. I am just glad I am able to experience it for not one year, but two years."
MSU (22-13) already has set a school record in winning three consecutive postseason games for the first time in program history. It will try to make it four in a row at 5 p.m. today when it plays host to South Florida (22-12) in the quarterfinals of the Women's National Invitation Tournament at Humphrey Coliseum. WMXU-FM 106.1 will broadcast the game live. Live video and audio also will be available at www.HailState.com/HSTVLive.
MSU is coming off a 59-54 victory against Auburn on Thursday. Kendra Grant scored 20 points, including 12 in a key stretch, to help the Bulldogs erase a 14-point deficit in the second half. A crowd of 1,809 provided a lift for MSU in the comeback. The size of that crowd played a role in MSU getting a chance to play host to today's game against a team that was one of the last left out of the NCAA tournament and one that finished third (13-5) in the American Athletic Conference.
USF also has advanced to the postseason 10 of the past 11 seasons under coach Jose Fernandez, who is in his 14th season as head coach. The Bulls reached the second round of the NCAA tournament last season.
USF's run of postseason participation is one MSU wants to become a standard in Starkville. The Bulldogs last appeared in the postseason in 2009-10, when they advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. Three-straight losing seasons followed, including last season in Schaefer's first as head coach of the team, but this year's group already has eclipsed the 21 victories the Sweet 16 team recorded. It's next goal is to win today to set up a matchup against the winner of the Rutgers-Bowling Green game. The semifinal-round game will be Wednesday or Thursday at a time and site to be determined.
James didn't hesitate to say "mind-set" when asked why the program has risen to a point where it can be a postseason participant every year. She said "everyone wants it," and that the coaches believe in the players and the players have confidence in each other to get the job done. The Bulldogs proved that and then some Thursday, rallying from a double-digit deficit when it looked like the squad was sputtering along without a spark.
"Just feeding off the coaching staff's energy, it has become something great," James said. "As long as the team wants it and we want to win, I believe we are going to do so."
Schaefer said the coaching staff imparting its "will" on the players and getting them to buy into has been a process that has seen its good and bad days. He said the coaches have tried their best to make things uncomfortable for the players so they are able to improve and overcome adversity. In each of its three games in the WNIT, the Bulldogs have done just that.
"I think you see flashes of things throughout the course of time, starting back to last year," Schaefer said. "Throughout this whole process, you keep asking kids to change and to try. Again, it is that comfortable thing. When you're comfortable with something, it is hard to imagine yourself doing something different that you have never done before. ... Once I think they step outside their comfort level and realize what they are capable of doing, it just opens a whole new world to them."
Schaefer used James as a perfect example of a player who has bought into the Bulldogs' style of play. Even though the junior point guard has started only one of 33 games this season, she has remained a consistent contributor and a valuable backup to senior Katia May. In addition to improving her shooting percentage nearly 10 percent to 35.1 percent, James has more assists than turnovers (93-57) and has increased her scoring average from 4.0 to 5.4 points per game.
James isn't the only returning player whose game has shown significant growth. And with the addition of freshmen Ketara Chapel, Dominique Dillingham, and Breanna Richardson and junior college transfer Savannah Carter, MSU has grown more confident in its ability to deliver.
"(James) is just growing up and maturing and she is enjoying the game because her skill set has come around and gotten better, too," Schaefer said. "A lot of times with young people it is just a mind-set."
Coaches need to have that mind-set, too, especially when you're trying to build a program that competes in the NCAA tournament every year. Schaefer has tried to accomplish that goal at San Houston State, Arkansas, and Texas A&M. He helped the Razorbacks advance to the Final Four and played an integral role with Johnnie Harris, who is now an associate head coach at MSU, in helping the Aggies win a national title in 2011.
In year two in Starkville, Schaefer feels the team has made great strides to put itself in the discussion for the top 25 next season, but that doesn't mean he wants that discussion to start today.
"I always talk about the blueprint," Schaefer said. "After the first year, we were ahead of the curve. After two years, we are absolutely ahead of the blueprint that I have. You have to give these young ladies credit for what they have done and been able to accomplish.
"We might be a little bit ahead of the curve, but, at the same time, the next curve is the other tournament. That is what is in front of us. We will remind them every day starting whenever we decide to get out on the track (for preseason workouts for the 2014-15 season)."
NOTE: Tickets cost $8 for general admission and $4 for students. The first 700 MSU students get in free, and free pizza will be offered to the first 200 students. Tickets can be purchased online at www.hailstate.com/tickets or by phone at 1-888-GO-DAWGS.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino in Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.