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Minichino Column: No time for rest for Schaefer, coaching staff


Adam Minichino





That was the word Connecticut women's basketball coach used to describe how he felt about his team's game against Notre Dame in the Division I national championship game. Auriemma made the comment following UConn's victory against Stanford in the national semifinal. Earlier Sunday, Notre Dame dispatched Maryland to set up a matchup of undefeated teams many in the nation had been waiting all season to see. 


The fact that UConn routed Notre Dame 79-58 for its record ninth national title shouldn't diminish the fantastic season the Fighting Irish had. After all, Notre Dame had very little time to adjust to losing senior center Natalie Achonwa to a season-ending knee injury in a victory against Baylor in the regional final. 


But UConn's victory should highlight a crucial point: Division I women's basketball needs to improve. Coaches and fans should welcome UConn's dominance -- not wonder whether it is good or bad for the game -- because it provides motivation for teams to be great. Mississippi State women's basketball coach Vic Schaefer is one of many who understands that. That's why there is hardly any "offseason" for Schaefer and his coaching staff, even after a 22-14 season in which the Bulldogs won three games in the postseason for the first time in the program's history. 


Instead of sitting back and reflecting on the growth from a 13-17 season in 2012-13, Schaefer and his staff were back at work this weekend playing host to a recruit who could be the final piece to their 2014 recruiting class. If you need a reminder, that class includes Scott Central High School standout Victoria Vivians, the state's all-time leading scorer and the nation's second all-time leading scorer. Vivians is the marquee player in a recruiting class that was ranked 20th in the national by espnW and Dan Olson's Collegiate Girls Report. If you include 6-foot-5 center Chinwe Okorie, who was redshirted this season, the class likely would climb into the top 10. 


Will that class catapult MSU into the national title discussion? Possibly. Schaefer is confident next year's team should be in position to earn a preseason ranking in one of the national polls. But MSU and the rest of the teams have plenty of work to do. 


"You have to give credit to Geno because he has his team playing well and he deflects attention off his players to allow them to focus on the game itself," Schaefer said. "We're trying to develop a consistency and a way to do things just like Geno started at UConn and just like Muffet (McGraw) did when she took over the program at Notre Dame." 


Schaefer knows about building champions. He was part of the coaching staff that helped push Arkansas to the Final Four. He also was part of the coaching staff that led Texas A&M to the national title in 2011. Schaefer feels women's basketball is at a similar position to where it was in 2011, when the nation was ready for a new champion and Texas A&M obliged them. For that to happen, it has to be about more than just players. UConn won a national championship with six players. Even though four of them are among the best in the nation, it would have been a welcome matchup to see a team that went eight or nine deep and plays an aggressive, smart brand of basketball take on the Huskies.  


"Nobody gives Connecticut credit for being a great defensive team," Schaefer said. "(Senior center Stefanie) Dolson was the defensive player of the year in the country. They don't foul a lot, and again, I think you have to give them credit because they do a great job recruiting. They also are smart. Their IQ is very high. Geno demands a lot of them and those kids are all fierce competitors. You have to have kids who have a skill set. That is where it all starts." 


As much as having skilled players is a starting point, players need to have the right mind-set. They need to push themselves to ignore civility and to pummel their opponent by making every move they make on offense difficult and by challenging them with every cut, pass, and move to the basket. 


MSU is in as good a position to be one of those teams as anyone. In a day and age when Bowl Championship Series programs are hiring television broadcasters and former Division I powers are making "name" hires to recapture their glory, why can't MSU be one of those teams? The Bulldogs have a wonderful practice facility, can recruit from a state and in a region filled with talented players, play in the best conference in the nation, and have a group of coaches that will push them into uncomfortable situations to push them to get better. 


Tuesday will be anything but uncomfortable. That's the day MSU will hold its annual banquet to celebrate its season. Fans are invited to attend the event at the Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex. By then, Schaefer should have lost the "loser's limp" that he came down with after a last-second 60-58 loss to South Florida in the quarterfinals of the Women's National Invitation Tournament. If you were one of the 3,006 fans at Humphrey Coliseum that night, you know MSU has served notice it is going to be heard in 2014-15 and in the future. 


"I don't think you can mention us in the same breath (as UConn, Notre Dame, Stanford, and Maryland) yet," Schaefer said. "I do think people understand it is just a matter of time. I think that is where we are right now. People understand across the country it is only a matter of time, and that time is fixin' to be here. I think that is the prevailing feeling across the country, and that is certainly the feeling on our staff as well." 


Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor. Contact him at: [email protected]


Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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