December 26, 2012 9:33:20 PM
The ticking is getting louder.
In seven days, Vic Schaefer and the Mississippi State University women's basketball team will kick off Southeastern Conference play at 7 p.m. Jan. 3, 2013, at Vanderbilt University. That matchup is the first of a 16-game gauntlet that includes eight games against seven league teams that are ranked or also receiving votes in this week's Associated Press Top 25 poll.
MSU (6-5) returned to practice at 6 p.m. Wednesday for its final tuneups in preparation for games at 7 p.m. Friday against Northwestern State (4-5) and at 7 p.m. Saturday against Troy University (3-8) at Humphrey Coliseum.
Schaefer hopes the non-conference matchups against Southland and Sun Belt conference opponents will give his team two more chances to develop the aggressive mind-set he wants them to take into the SEC.
"I think we have been in every game we lost except for one," said Schaefer, the longtime assistant and associate head coach at the University of Arkansas and Texas A&M University who is in his first season as coach at MSU. "I think it has been a process for our kids to adapt to a new staff and to new demands."
Schaefer said he talked with associate head coach Johnnie Harris on Wednesday morning to go over ways the coaches could continue to help the players understand what they want and how they want it to be done. He said that understanding will be even more important on Thursday-Sunday turnarounds when MSU goes against teams like the University of Georgia (No. 6 this week in The AP poll), the University of Kentucky (No. 7), the University of Tennessee (No. 13), the University of South Carolina (No. 19), Texas A&M (No. 24), Arkansas (No. 25), and Vanderbilt (ARV).
For the most part, Schaefer said he has been fairly pleased with his players' effort. He said his first MSU team is different and similar to his first team at TAMU when he was a member of coach Gary Blair's staff. Led by senior Toccara Williams, Texas A&M started 7-4 in 2003-04 and went on to finish 9-19 and 2-14 in the Big 12 Conference.
With four seniors and one junior college transfer, Schaefer said that team had more experience than the 2012-13 MSU squad, which has only one senior (Darriel Gaynor). As a result, it has taken longer for the Bulldogs to grasp the style of play Schaefer and his coaches expect from them. Following a 69-54 victory against Jacksonville State on Dec. 20, Schaefer hinted at that style of play when he complimented sophomore Shamia Robinson for playing to the point of exhaustion en route to a career-high 17-point, 10-rebound effort. He also was disappointed several other players didn't come to play and, as a result, he limited their playing time in the victory. Schaefer said developing better consistency will be crucial for the Bulldogs, especially since they have a lack of depth and they are limited in experience.
"I think we're a little bit (closer to getting the level of effort we want)," said Schaefer, who was pleased with his team's 2.95 grade-point average for the fall semester. "There are certain kids who play at a high level one game and then because of youth and immaturity and a general lack of experience they disappear next game. We have to develop some consistency and an identity within our team. What we want is people adjusting to you and how you are doing things, not having you adjust to them. When we have that we know we are heading in right direction."
Statistically, MSU is still making strides. Junior point guard Katia May (41 assists, 37 turnovers) and sophomore point guard Jerica James (21, 26) combine to average 8 points per game. While their assist-to-turnover ratio is nearly 1-to-1, the team is well off that ratio (130-to-232). Ideally, Schaefer said he would like to see his point guards have a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
MSU fares a little better defensively. It is holding opponents to 58.8 points per game and 35.9-percent shooting from the field. Those numbers put MSU ninth and sixth in the SEC. MSU will have to hold steady in both categories because it enters its non-conference finales averaging 59.9 ppg., which is last in the 14-team SEC.
Schaefer watched players at Texas A&M adjust to the mind-set he has brought to MSU. He understands the level of experience between those teams is different (MSU sophomores Kendra Grant and Martha Alwal are the only returning players with significant playing experience from last season), but he still is going to hold the Bulldogs accountable.
"I think our job as coaches is to continue to teach and to provide opportunities for growth and improvement," Schaefer said. "If you have never done it (play to the level he demands), you can get pretty uncomfortable pretty quick. When you're uncomfortable, you tend to try to avoid being uncomfortable. With playing hard, there is a whole other level athletes can go to. If you won't push past it, that can be a challenge, and that is part of what we're doing with these young kids."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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