April 5, 2014 4:32:18 PM
Vic Schaefer believed progress was possible in his second season as Mississippi State women's basketball coach.
But the veteran coach wasn't sure how much better MSU could be with three freshmen and a junior college transfer in key roles.
Schaefer's hope was the Bulldogs could find a way to come together and navigate the marathon route together. In the back of his mind, though, he wondered if MSU could develop the toughness it needed to win in the Southeastern Conference, or the "biggest, baddest league" in the nation, as Schaefer often calls it.
Eight months and nearly 40 games later, Schaefer was left with a "loser's limp" that told only half of the story of his team's growth in the 2013-14 season.
A 60-58 loss to South Florida in the quarterfinals of the Women's National Invitation Tournament on Monday was the source of Schaefer's "limp," or disappointment that the Bulldogs' season had to come to an end. A year that started with a 13-1 non-conference record ended with a similar high, a four-game run deep into the WNIT. That stretch featured victories against Tulane, Southern Mississippi, and Auburn at Humphrey Coliseum, and marked the first time MSU won three consecutive postseason games.
"I am not sure you could have sat here and said to me, 'Vic, you're going to win 22 games next year," said Schaefer, whose team went 13-17 in 2012-13. "I am not sure anybody would have thought that was possible, but, at the end of the day, that is what happens when you have hard-working kids that will trust a coaching staff and buy into a system and you have tireless workers in our program coaching wise that outprepare people and give your kids a chance to win. That is what my staff does. That is all we know. To us, that is what we're supposed to do."
Schaefer and his coaches had that same mentality when they arrived in Starkville. The adjustment period, though, had its share of ups and downs, and while MSU took plenty of small steps, including a big one in an upset of No. 11 Georgia in Starkville, the season ended with the bitter taste of a 63-36 loss to Alabama in the SEC tournament. It was the same Alabama team MSU defeated 75-51 two weeks earlier.
That loss helped explain why Schaefer didn't make a big deal about the expectations for this season. While his experience in helping build Arkansas into a perennial NCAA tournament participant and Texas A&M into a national champion in 2011 gave him confidence similar things could be done at MSU, he realized his returning players were still learning how to win and that they would have to figure out how to play with a group of talented newcomers.
It's safe to say the Bulldogs accomplished all of those goals in 2013-14. The proof is in the numbers. The team improved its scoring (70.9 points per game) and its field goal percentage (39.7 percent), and was the nation's leader in free throws attempted (997). The final statistic shows how the Bulldogs (22-14) embraced Schaefer's attacking philosophy that at times dictated that the players create "train wrecks" by taking the ball to the rim.
But as much progress as MSU made, there is still plenty of room for growth. Junior Martha Alwal, who was a first-team All-SEC pick and the league's co-Defensive Player of the Year, had a 25-point, 23-rebound effort in an overtime victory against Ole Miss. After that game, though, she led the team in scoring only once in the last eight games, including a season-low five-point effort against USF. MSU's lack of depth up front contributed to Alwal's dip in production down the stretch. The 6-foot-4 center shot only 41 percent from the field in the last eight games. Alwal led the team in scoring (14.9 ppg) and was fourth in the SEC in field goal percentage (49.2 percent).
MSU also has work to do when it comes to 3-point shooting (30.2 percent, 10th in the SEC), field goal percentage defense (40.6 percent, 10th in the SEC), and its assist-to-turnover ration, which even though improved still saw a 509-583 differential.
The addition of 6-5 center Chinwe Okorie next season should provide MSU with another defensive stopper in the paint. Okorie, who is from Stoneleigh-Burnham (Mass.) School via Nigeria, wasn't declared eligible by the NCAA early in the season and was redshirted. The addition of point guard Morgan William, who is from Alabama, and Starkville High School standout Blair Schaefer, the daughter of Vic Schaefer, will bolster a backcourt that loses point guard Katia May to graduation.
MSU's nationally ranked recruiting class also includes Scott Central High standout Victoria Vivians, the state's all-time leading scorer and the nation's No. 2 all-time scorer in high school basketball; forward LaKaris Salter, who is from Florida; and forward Kayla Nevitt, who is from Texas. The five newcomers and Okorie will give MSU depth at all five positions, something Schaefer said the team didn't have the past two seasons. That is just part of the reason why expectations for next season have changed.
"We're going to talk about the NCAA tournament from day one," Schaefer said when asked about his team's goals for the 2014-15 season. "That is where our expectations lie. It is up to us if we don't make it happen. I am going to be disappointed if we're not receiving votes in the preseason top 25 because I think we're that good."
Schaefer said Thursday he addressed that topic with Alwal and felt she responded well and understands the expectations the Bulldogs will face next season. He is confident MSU will be able to tackle that challenge because he said the biggest improvement most college players make comes between their freshman and sophomore seasons. That bodes well for MSU, who saw Dominique Dillingham (27.9 minutes per game), Breanna Richardson (24.6), and Ketara Chapel (17.1) play key roles. Junior college transfer Savannah Carter averaged 28.3 minutes per game in her first season and developed a better understanding of her role on the team as the season progressed.
Just like Alwal, though, the freshmen have plenty of room to improve. After a career-high 21-point effort against Missouri on Jan. 26, Dillingham scored in double figures only once in the last 15 games and shot 22 percent (22 of 100) in that span. Richardson, who was third on the team in scoring at 9.5 ppg., was second on the team on turnovers with 97.
"Our three freshmen, as good as they were this year, I anticipate them being much improved next season," Schaefer said. "It is up to them how much more they can be."
On the flip side, junior Kendra Grant finished with a flurry. The 5-11 guard scored in double figures in five of the last six games, and was the team's scoring leader four times. Against Auburn and USF in the WNIT, Grant took the team on her shoulders and showed a confidence that was missing for much of the season.
With so many pieces to the puzzle, Schaefer said no one has a position locked up. He said he wants the players who were starters to fight and compete to retain their positions, but he emphasized there is going to be plenty of competition for minutes because all of the incoming freshmen have experienced their share of success, just like the freshmen on the 2013-14 team.
"That is what you want," Schaefer said of the competition. You want kids competing every day because that is how you get better."
Getting better and climbing higher will be the goals next season. It remains to be seen who will lead the team in scoring or how many of the freshmen will come in and be impact players. But it's safe to say more good times are coming very soon for MSU.
"I think they will be hungry (to realize the goals for next season), and I think they will have a better understanding of what it takes to make it happen," Schaefer said.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.