January 24, 2013 10:13:48 AM
Here's the deal: Gary Blair will dip into his bag of 500 or so offensive plays tonight and challenge his opponent to react. Vic Schaefer will counter by trying to devise a defense that will confound, frustrate, and outhustle his opponent.
After working together for 15 years, there isn't too much Blair and Schaefer don't know about each other. The big difference is the coaches will be on opposite benches at 7 tonight (WKBB-FM 100.9, WXWX-FM 96.3) when No. 16 Texas A&M University takes on Mississippi State University at Humphrey Coliseum.
Schaefer spent the past nine seasons as Blair's associate head coach at Texas A&M, where he played an integral role as "Secretary of Defense" in helping the Aggies win the 2011 national title. Prior to that, Schaefer worked as an assistant and associate head coach for Blair at the University of Arkansas. Texas A&M's decision to leave the Big 12 Conference for the Southeastern Conference reunites the coaches who share an affinity for golf and competition at just about everything.
"We are two of the most competitive people in the world," Schaefer said. "We just want to win."
This will be the first time Schaefer will coach against Blair since he was head coach at Sam Houston State from 1990-97 and Blair was coach at Stephen F. Austin. Schaefer said he lost to Blair in his first season when SFA was No. 10 in the nation. The following season, Schaefer said SFA exacted revenge for the close call with an 88-39 victory.
This season, Schaefer is in a similar situation to the one he inherited at Sam Houston State. MSU (8-10, 0-5 SEC) has lost its SEC games by an average of 29 points. Losses to Vanderbilt University (92-41) and the University of Kentucky (100-47) rank with the program's all-time biggest losses in SEC play. With only two returning players with significant experience from last season, Schaefer expected growing pains. Still, he has seen the Bulldogs take small steps, and he has been pleased of late that his team has delivered more consistent energy and defensive intensity. The Bulldogs will need those qualities tonight against a team that leads the SEC and is seventh nationally in field goal percentage (46.6 percent) and is 12th nationally in assists per game (17.3). Texas A&M (14-5, 4-1), which is coming off a 64-46 victory Sunday at then-No. 12 University of Georgia, features junior center Kelsey Bone, the league's second-leading scorer (17.9 points per game) and leading rebounder (10.2). The transfer from the University of South Carolina also leads the SEC in field goal percentage (60.6 percent).
Bone's play has helped Texas A&M regroup after it opened the season with losses to the University of Louisville, Penn State University, and the University of Connecticut.
"I do believe we have improved more than 99 percent of the teams in the country," Blair said. "I think our improvement has been very good. A lot of it stems from those older kids who have sat around and become very, very good players and didn't transfer our or put a lip on ground."
Blair credits seniors Kristi Bellock and Adrienne Pratcher for emerging as team leaders on a squad that features seven freshmen, including four in the top eight.
Texas A&M's statistics aren't surprising considering Schaefer said Blair as has an "unbelievable offensive mind" and is an "offensive genius." On Sunday, former Auburn University coach and college basketball analyst Nell Fortner joked on the ESPN2 broadcast that Blair had more than 500 offensive plays he could use in a game. Schaefer isn't sure how many Blair has, but he knows his former boss is a quality coach. In June, Blair will be inducted to the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn.
"He is a great coach. Period," Schaefer said. "He sees the game at a different level."
Schaefer praised Blair for allowing him and the other coaches at Arkansas and Texas A&M to do their jobs. He said Blair gave him the freedom to call the defenses at both schools, which made the job of each coach a little easier. Schaefer said he is trying to follow a similar approach at MSU by giving associate head coach Johnnie Harris, who also worked for Blair at Texas A&M, assistant coach Aqua Franklin, who was a point guard for Blair and Schaefer at Texas A&M, and his other coaches specific responsibilities. MSU Director of Basketball Operations Maryann Baker also was a player for Blair and Schaefer at Texas A&M.
"It is fair to say we complemented each other and did what was best for the programs. I give him credit to do that," Schaefer said. "He has always said hire good people and put them around me and let them work."
Blair and Schaefer went 333-166 at Arkansas and Texas A&M. In all, Blair is 634-258 (.710 winning percentage) in 28 seasons as a Division I head coach.
"You have no idea what a good man you have there in Vic Schaefer and what a good staff he has," Blair said. "You will see the result of (their hard work) in the next three to four to five years. Right now, you have to understand what he has going, and you're going to appreciate him for what he is going to do for that program and the state of Mississippi."
Blair admits Schaefer, who is a four handicap, is a better golfer. That wasn't always the case, though. Schaefer said it still is difficult to beat Blair at golf because his former boss has a way of dictating the terms. He said Blair will begin a round by saying, "Here's the deal." He then will launch into a rundown of how the round will be played. Schaefer said Blair's strength as a "negotiator" helps him on the links and on the recruiting trail.
Blair joked he used to declare Schaefer on his income tax because he had so much success against him when they played golf. At 67 years old and with a nine handicap, he said Schaefer is the man he would want as a partner if they were playing in a four-ball tournament.
"There is nobody who focuses better in a round," Blair said of Schaefer. "He grinds. I am more of social butterfly and I will talk to anybody around. He loves to fish, he loves to hunt, and he might be best the best barbecuer around."
Blair is confident Schaefer will use those qualities to help get MSU back to the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in 2010. They have finished 13-17 and 14-16 and have won eight SEC games in the past two seasons.
"I think Vic is going to do a great job at Mississippi State, and is going to try to control that state (recruiting wise) first the same way we did at Arkansas," Blair said. "He is going to work hard."
Schaefer knows Blair and the Aggies are going to do the same. That's why he hopes his team has learned and improved in the week off since the loss at Kentucky and is ready for one of the toughest tests it will face this season. Last season, Texas A&M defeated MSU 93-47 in College Station, Texas. The Aggies forced 18 turnovers and held the Bulldogs to 25 percent shooting from the field.
"It is real unique this year after 15 years of doing something together, but it was time, and, obviously, they're doing very, very well," Schaefer said. "It has all worked out for everybody. Every day I am in this office I come to appreciate the things he had to deal with every day."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.