October 31, 2013 8:48:25 PM
STARKVILLE -- "Dark horse."
On paper, Arkansas coach Tom Collen's appraisal of the Mississippi State women's basketball chances this season appears to be accurate. After all, second-year coach Vic Schaefer returns four starters, including his two leading scorers, and adds a promising class of five to the mix in what should be a wide-open Southeastern Conference race behind projected favorites Tennessee and Kentucky.
But even though MSU has had two more weeks to come together since Collen made that statement at Southeastern Conference Media Days in Birmingham, Ala., Schaefer's 2013-14 team still will be young in many regards. The team's youth will depend on a number of factors, including how big of a role junior center Martha Alwal and junior guard Kendra Grant, who led the team in scoring last season, take on this season and how many of the five "newbies," as Schaefer likes to call them, play significant roles in their first season in the program.
"I don't know about (a) dark horse. It depends on what dark horse is," Schaefer said. "I think we're going to be better. I think our skill set is going to be better. I think we'll be competitive because of the newbies we have and the returners we have and the competitiveness we had to teach them throughout the course of last year.
"Dark horse? I don't know. I don't think anybody in the league will overlook us. I think we will have the respect of everybody in the league because of some of the success we had in the league last year. The results are to come."
MSU will unveil Schaefer's second team at 7 p.m. Monday when it plays host to Shorter in an exhibition game at Humphrey Coliseum. Four days later, MSU will open the season with a 5 p.m. game at Houston. Picked to finish 11th in the preseason SEC coaches poll, Schaefer isn't sure how much this year's team will live up to that ranking -- the 2012-13 team also was picked 11th in the preseason SEC poll -- or if it will be able to build on the flashes of promise it showed last season, especially an upset of then-No. 11 Georgia at The Hump.
"No fear, go play, been doing it all you life, let's go play," Schaefer said. "It can be a little overwhelming having to think and know all of the plays and know how hard we want you to play on defense, whose rotation is it, I am too low it help. All of that can really get overwhelming, but, at the end of the day, we're going to have to go play, we're going to have to make shots, we're going to have to have stops, but you have been doing it all your life. You all have won big games at a real high level, so let's go play.
"For our returners, you know what, we have four starters back. You guys should be a lot better. It is time to prove to them the proof is in the pudding and go get it done. This time last year, we had one and a half starters back. We have four starters back. It is time to take ownership and realize we should be better."
Alwal, a 6-foot-4 center from Worthington, Minn., led the team in scoring (12.1 points) and rebounding (9.7) per game last season. She led the SEC in double-doubles (16), including 10 in league play, and was named the winner of the Gillom Trophy, which goes to the best player in the state of Mississippi.
Alwal's rebounding average was the highest since LaToya Thomas in 2001-02. She also was second in the SEC with 2.6 blocked shots per game.
Still, there was a sense Alwal could have been more consistent and done even more in a season in which she made significant strides. In the preseason, Alwal said going against 6-5 freshman Chinwe Okorie has helped her improve and has shown her she needs to be a little meaner and more aggressive for longer stretches.
"I'm buying into that," Alwal said. "(Schaefer) tells me that all of the time and I always was like, 'No, coach. I don't think I can be that player. Let me be the role player.' But I am really buying into it after last season. I think I can be that player if I really want to be."
Grant was second on the team in scoring last season at 11.8 ppg. She was the only player to start all 30 games last season and is the team's most experienced player. Guards Candace Foster and Katia May are the team's only seniors.
"I feel really good about it," Grant said. "I feel like I am a totally different player from last year. Coach is always talking about not being comfortable in doing just one thing. If I am just a set shooter, I am easy to guard and predictable. He also is always talking about your skill set. It has just been adding to that and not being afraid to put it on the floor and attacking pressure with pressure. I think I have developed as a player. I still have more developing to do, but I feel I have gotten better in that aspect."
Improved play from Alwal and Grant still doesn't answer a key question: Who will be the team leader? Alwal said at SEC Media Days she didn't think the team would have one early on as it worked Okorie and classmates Breanna Richardson, Ketara Chapel, and Dominique Dillingham and junior college transfer Savannah Carter into the mix. Schaefer has said in the preseason as many as two freshmen and Carter could be in the starting lineup to open the season.
"I think we have a little more chemistry," Alwal said. "Last year, we really didn't know what to expect. Now we know what to expect and we work better together. Since we know what Schaefer wants from us, it is easier for us to do what we're supposed to.
"I think they're going to see us going hard all the time just because of our newcomers. They are so competitive all of the time. They never take plays off, so you're going to see a faster, better, stronger team than this year than the years prior."
MSU also figures to be more versatile. With Richardson and Chapel capable of playing both forward spots and Carter and Dillingham capable of playing both guard positions, Schaefer should have the depth to keep up the defensive intensity, or to go to the bench and replace someone who isn't giving him what he wants. With a talented group of five and counting for the Class of 2014 set to join the program, Schaefer hopes everyone knows MSU is moving forward and he wants everybody to be committed to push the program higher.
"If you're not careful -- and that is for anybody -- you're liable to get passed by," Schaefer said. "That is what we need. We need depth, we need kids competing on a daily basis, and I think we have got that right now."
Alwal's work on a more assertive demeanor came through at SEC Media Days when she talked about how MSU aims to meet the higher expectations. She knows MSU went 13-17 last season and missed out on the postseason for the third-straight year. She said that won't be acceptable this season.
"It is kind of annoying," Alwal said when asked what she thought of MSU being picked 11th in the preseason poll. "It is going to make us work harder. We think we should be higher up. I think we will get there as the season goes."
Grant echoed those thoughts when she said MSU is targeting a SEC title and a trip to the NCAA tournament. The last time MSU was there in 2009-10 it advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.
"When we were going into the first practice, I think coach was more excited than any of us," Grant said. "I think it really just shows the expectations he has for us and what we expect from ourselves (are higher). We know last year wasn't the best year. We know what we could have done. Now that we know, we have to keep working and make it happen."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.