March 11, 2013 11:25:02 PM
Is a team better off not having any flashes of brilliance or staying in the same gear for an entire season?
The members of the Mississippi State University women's basketball team will have seven months to answer that question before they return for the 2013-14. The Bulldogs better have the right response because rest assured Vic Schaefer and his assistant coaches aren't going to accept a repeat of the 2012-13 season.
In many ways, Schaefer was playing with house money. He inherited a young, inexperienced team that many didn't think would accomplish much. That the Bulldogs were picked 11th in the Southeastern Conference preseason poll showed just how much respect Schaefer, the former assistant and associate head coach at the University of Arkansas and Texas A&M University, and his coaching staff have earned from their peers.
On paper, there are plenty of reasons to call this season a success. MSU's 13-17 record and 5-11 mark in the SEC are more respectable than many around the league would have guessed. That the Bulldogs reached those heights with only one senior and a lack of size and depth in the frontcourt shows how far Schaefer and his coaches were able to push the Bulldogs in one year.
But those numbers also show how long the road is for the Bulldogs. The 2012-13 can be remembered as the season MSU showed glimpses of the hard work and defensive execution Schaefer demands from his players. There were no better examples of that tenacity and grit than a 75-51 victory against the University of Alabama and a 50-38 victory against then-No. 11 University of Georgia. In both games, MSU played with the mind-set it was going to make both opponents bleed to score.
If you haven't heard Schaefer talk about defense, he expects his players to embrace an attitude that they will do anything it takes to deny and to harass another player. And just as some people didn't understand Schaefer's comment doesn't mean he wants his players to cause bodily harm to their opponents, it took equally as long for his players to comprehend the energy level they need to match their coach's demands.
In the end, though, what they delivered was just a tease, and it isn't enough. Maybe MSU wasn't any better than last in the league in scoring (55.2 points per game), in assist-to-turnover ratio (0.6), and number of turnovers (603).
The team's first 12 minutes against Alabama and its defensive effort against Georgia say otherwise. You can also look to a 47-44 victory against the University of Arkansas and a 61-56 victory against the University of Missouri as proof this year's MSU team was capable to more than being another conference doormat.
But just when you were ready to start believing in the Bulldogs they gave you every reason to throw your hands up and question their resolve. An uninspired final 20 minutes against the University of Mississippi in Oxford cost MSU a chance at a three-game winning streak and a higher finish than 12th in the final regular-season standings. An lackluster first 20 minutes against Auburn University in the regular-season finale cost MSU a chance at valuable tiebreakers that also could have improved its seeding for the SEC tournament.
None of those examples, though, compares to the complete dud MSU delivered in a 63-36 loss to Alabama. The 36 points matched a single-game scoring low for a SEC tournament game. The effort was lethargic and without direction, much like the team's play early in the season when it was still adjusting to Schaefer's style. At that time, the players didn't know how they needed to play to satisfy Schaefer's game plan. And while they wanted to please, their actions fell short.
At the end of the season, those flashes of brilliance were all MSU could muster. They reflected the lessons had been learned but that the players weren't capable of sustaining that level of efficiency of expectation.
Now the Bulldogs have to decide if they can and want to offer more. Sophomores will be juniors next season and will be expected to come back better players, better conditioned, and better prepared mentally to turn in 40-minute efforts every game. If they're not ready for that assignment, Schaefer will find players who will accept that mandate. Don't forget he was an important part of the Texas A&M University women's basketball team's march to the 2011 national title, so he isn't going to sit back and accept the status quo. He is going to affect a change any way he can.
That building process means finding players who are going to work to improve on 36 percent shooting from the field in 2011-12 and 36.4 percent shooting from the field this season. It demands identifying players who can help prevent MSU from having an assist-to-turnover ratio of 0.6 (11th in 2011-12, 14th this season) the past two seasons.
The flashes MSU showed this season served only to divert attention from the fact the program treaded water in many statistical categories. The flashes also showed MSU has the heart, will, and passion to learn more than one stroke and to move out of the SEC basement. It's up to the players to commit to one path and to give it their all to reach the final destination. If they don't, they will be left behind because flashes of brilliance aren't enough for Schaefer.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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