October 27, 2009 10:37:00 AM
Adam Minichino - email@example.com
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Marneshia Richard did everything she could last year to help the Mississippi State women''s basketball team.
She cheered, she encouraged, she offered advice, and she provided leadership.
Richard did all that as she watched ... and watched ... and watched.
Watching was all the senior guard could do last season as she tried to work her way back from offseason knee surgery. She had hoped to be with her teammates at some point last season, but swelling in her knee as she worked to return to 100 percent hampered her progress.
One year later, Richard is ready to do a lot more than watching after sitting out a redshirt season.
"It was kind of tough because I was looking forward to playing," Richard said. "We had an awesome season, and I hadn''t gotten a chance to experience being in the NCAA tournament since I have been here. I hated it I didn''t get to play, but I am so proud of my team for making it that far."
MSU went 23-10 and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2002-03 season. The return of four starters and 11 letterwinners from a team that lost to Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA tournament has generated a lot of optimism in Starkville.
The Lady Bulldogs also are receiving a lot of national attention. The Sporting News has MSU ranked No. 21 in its preseason poll, while Lindy''s picked the Lady Bulldogs No. 25 in its poll.
Last week, Southeastern Conference and national media members picked MSU to finish fifth in the SEC.
Some SEC coaches quibbled Thursday at SEC Media Day that MSU was picked too low. The return of Richard to the floor could play a role in that thinking. As a sophomore and as a junior, she set class records for assists (125 and 138).
Richard''s presence on the court figures to bolster a position of strength for the Lady Bulldogs. Senior guard Alexis Rack, a first-team All-SEC pick a year ago and a preseason first-team All-SEC pick this year, senior Armelie Lumanu, junior Mary Kathryn Govero, and sophomore Diamber Johnson are just four players in the mix at what could be the team''s deepest position.
MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis is looking forward to adding Richard''s poise and maturity to the lineup.
"Her demonstration of how something is done, I could not ask for anything better," Fanning-Otis said. "She is going to have to continue to communicate this team through things. We have to be more communicative relative to our expectations and holding each other accountable. We''re not tough enough on each other as a team."
Fanning-Otis wants Richard to be a leader who drives her teammates to work as hard as she does. She said Richard''s effort can help set the tone for players who need to demand it of each other and who have to make a serious commitment to each other.
Richard is ready for that challenge. In 2007-08, she led the team in minutes played (33.8 per game) and was third on the team in scoring (9.8 points per game). She also led the team with 62 steals. But the Lady Bulldogs went 16-15 that season and suffered a disappointing loss to Southern Miss in the second round of the WNIT.
Richard watched the Lady Bulldogs mature and take the next step last season. Her goal this season is to do whatever she can to help MSU take another step.
"We have eight or nine seniors on the team, and everybody is looking to go out with a bang," Richard said. "We have a great, great opportunity in front of us. We have a lot of people who played a lot of minutes last year, so that experience factor is there. We''re looking forward to really, really competing in the league. We''re looking no less than a SEC championship this year. Everyone knows our goals, and we''re going to try to work very hard to reach those goals."
Richard said the Lady Bulldogs talk every day about their chances of winning the program''s first SEC title. In a season without a marquee player like a Candace Parker or a Sylvia Fowles and plenty of youth and rebuilding throughout the league, MSU has as good a shot as any team to capture a title.
But Richard also is savvy enough to know that nothing is guaranteed and that the Lady Bulldogs are going to have to work even harder this season to match what they did a year ago.
That''s fine with her because she is ready to back on the floor playing instead of watching.
"I guess I will be that steady leader and try to encourage my teammates," Richard said. "I will try to be a leader on the defensive end and try to help pick up the defensive intensity. I will try to keep everybody''s head level and straight and try to help the team to build off the success of last year."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.