March 15, 2014 7:04:22 PM
The end of the Southeastern Conference tournament was just the beginning for Vic Schaefer and the women's basketball team.
Not only has the Mississippi State women's basketball coach been traveling the region recruiting, he and members of his coaching staff have been getting the Bulldogs back in line in anticipation of extending the 2013-14 season.
That season officially will continue late Monday night when MSU learns its opponent in the 64-team Women's National Invitation Tournament. After going 18-12 (5-11 SEC) in the regular season and 1-1 in the SEC tournament in Duluth, Ga., MSU is expected to earn its sixth invitation to the WNIT. School officials hope the Bulldogs get an opportunity to play host to a first-round game, which would be Wednesday or Thursday night.
"I think obviously it is a great reward for your kids because they deserve the opportunity to play in postseason," Schaefer said earlier this week. "They have earned it. It is exciting for them. Practices tend to be lighter and you're trying to stay crisp. A lot of kids have played so many minutes, so they deserve time off."
Schaefer gave his team several days off following its 71-67 loss to Florida in the SEC tournament on March 6. The team returned to the court Wednesday to begin the process of shaking off the rust and the natural tendency to relax at Spring Break. But Schaefer said being busy at this time of the year is nothing new for him or for his staff. He and associate head coach Johnnie Harris have made multiple trips to the state of Arkansas to watch the state tournament. Schaefer, Harris, and assistant coaches Aqua Franklin and Brittany Hudson also were in Jackson earlier this week to watch Scott Central senior and MSU signee Victoria Vivians play H.W. Byers in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 2A state title game.
Vivians is the centerpiece to a top-20 recruiting class that will join the program for the 2014-15 season That class comes on the heels of another nationally ranked recruiting class that helped MSU add six wins to its total from last season and put it back in position to play in the postseason.
"There is no such thing as Spring Break in our vocabulary when you play in a top-25 program," Schaefer said. "When you play in a top-25 program (being busy at Spring Break) is part of it."
with so many teams jockeying for a spot in the NCAA tournament, busy is the operative word in Division I men's and women's basketball. According to ESPN's Charlie Creme, the SEC will earn eight bids to the NCAA tournament. Through games played Friday, Creme has Florida and Vanderbilt as two of his last four teams into the tournament. If things follow Creme's plan, SEC tournament champion Tennessee, tournament runner-up Kentucky, regular-season champion South Carolina, Texas A&M, Georgia, and LSU also would earn invitations to the "Big Dance." That would leave Auburn, MSU (19-13), and Missouri as likely candidates to receive bids to the WNIT.
Arkansas, which finished 10th in the final regular-season standings, also likely would have earned a bid to the WBIT, but the Razorbacks fired coach Tom Collen at the end of the season. Alabama and Ole Miss finished below .500 and aren't eligible for the WNIT.
MSU last played in the WNIT in 2008, when it lost to Southern Miss 62-61 in Hattiesburg. This season, MSU is a likely candidate to play host to a first-round game based in part on being a member of a power conference and thanks to its solid attendance figures. MSU's home attendance grew from an average of 1,317 last season to 2,425 this season, which was ninth in the league, one behind Auburn (2,426).
With a Ratings Percentage Index of 82 and a Strength of Schedule of 82 (through games played Friday), MSU has two of the highest marks for teams not going to play in the NCAA tournament. Southern Miss, which is on the outside of the NCAA tournament bubble, according to Creme, has an RPI of 31. It plays today in the semifinals of the Conference USA tournament. MSU defeated Southern Miss 71-61 on Dec. 14, 2013, in Starkville.
If Southern Miss doesn't win the C-USA tournament and receive that league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, it could be an opponent for MSU if both teams advance in the WNIT. With conference favorites Bowling Green and Central Michigan losing Friday in their league tournaments, plenty of NCAA tournament spots are still up for grabs. That uncertainty makes it difficult to determine if MSU will earn a home game or who it will play. Based on geography, teams from the Southwestern Athletic Conference, the Southland Conference, or Conference USA are three leagues that could send teams to Starkville. Stetson (DeLand, Fla., Atlantic Sun) and Belmont (Nashville, Tenn., Ohio Valley Conference) are two other leading candidates.
Schaefer didn't want to buy into all of that speculation earlier this week. Instead, he looked back on his team's lackluster effort in the first half against Florida that put it in a position to come from behind in the second half, only to fall at the end.
"We are three overtime losses from the NCAA tournament," said Schaefer, referring to his team's regular-season losses to Ole Miss, Alabama, and Kentucky. "I can't get it out of my head. From that standpoint, I am disappointed as a head coach because that is my responsibility.
MSU last advanced to the NCAA tournament in 2009-10, when it beat Middle Tennessee State and Ohio State to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history. Three losing seasons followed before the Bulldogs were able to clean up in the non-conference portion of their schedule to solidify a return to the postseason. Schaefer hopes a bid to the WNIT will help the Bulldogs maintain momentum as they gear up for next season.
"I don't want to get ahead of myself, but we have a chance, hopefully, to win 20-plus games," Schaefer said. "We have to prepare and think like we are going to play in postseason."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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