June 14, 2014 11:14:23 PM
STARKVILLE -- If you didn't know any better, it would be easy to think the Mississippi State women's basketball team's five incoming freshmen were enjoying a day at the beach.
Although the first day of summer was still more than a week away, Kayla Nevitt, LaKaris Salter, Blair Schaefer, Victoria Vivians, and Morgan William were smiling, laughing, and joking like they were old friends, not like nervous newcomers a week into their first summer school session at MSU.
All you have to do is examine the resumes of all five of the new Bulldogs to see everything they have accomplished in prep and Amateur Athletic Union basketball has prepared them for the next step. That's why it doesn't matter that the five freshmen join a program that returns five starters and faces the expectations of returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2009-10 season. It also doesn't matter that MSU expects to see itself in the preseason national rankings after going 22-14 and advancing to the quarterfinals of the Women's National Invitation Tournament.
Expectations like those would cause some first-year players to think about where they will sit on the bench and how they are going to have to wait for their turn to play. Instead, Nevitt, Salter, Schaefer, Vivians, and William appeared ready Thursday to adopt a nickname of a well-known group of freshmen in an attempt to show they're ready to help MSU be more competitive in the Southeastern Conference and to be a challenger on the national scene.
"Fab Five squaaaaad," Salter said, referencing the class of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson that led Michigan to national prominence.
The five freshmen make up a recruiting class that was ranked No. 20 in the nation by Dan Olson of Collegiate Girls Basketball Report and espnW HoopGurlz. All five will attend both sessions of summer school and will travel with the team Aug. 4-14 on a trip to France. Overseas trips typically serve to help bring teams together, but judging from the ease with which they interacted Thursday, the five freshmen appear to have adjusted quite nicely to the thought of playing together for the next four seasons.
On paper, the addition of Nevitt, Salter, Schaefer, Vivians, and William will give coach Vic Schaefer the deepest team he has had as he prepares for his third season at MSU. After going 13-17 in his first season, Schaefer and his coaching staff engineered a nine-win improvement from the 2012-13 season thanks to the maturation of players like juniors Martha Alwal and Kendra Grant and the spark that newcomers Savannah Carter, Ketara Chapel, Dominique Dillingham, and Breanna Richardson brought to the table.
Schaefer acknowledges this year's group of freshmen is similar to last year's in that all of the players come from successful programs and are accustomed to winning and working hard. Many of them enjoy playing defense, too, which is Schaefer's calling card. Nicknamed "the Secretary of Defense" for his ability to get his teams to play in-your-face defense, Schaefer watched last season as the Bulldogs came together at the end of the season to beat Tulane, Southern Mississippi, and Auburn in the WNIT at Humphrey Coliseum before falling to South Florida on a buzzer-beater.
MSU's ability to fight back from deficits in the postseason offered a glimpse of what Schaefer hopes to see on a more consistent basis this season with an even deeper and more talented roster.
"I think they have developed (their camaraderie) over the course of being recruited here and then signing here," Schaefer said. "They have gotten to know each other through AAU, so they all have been very excited to be here. Since they have been here, they have bonded well. They seem to enjoy being here and they are all excited to have a chance to play together.
"They're confident kids. Usually you're confident if you have a good skill set, and I think all five kids have a great skill set. The unique thing about these five is they are all confident in their games, they are confident young women, and they feel like they have something to offer and contribute. They are not just wanting to fit in. They want to impact. That is why we recruited this group."
No matter where you start, each freshman figure to be a piece to a puzzle that complements the other. Schaefer, who is the daughter of Vic Schaefer, capped a standout prep career at Starkville High. She didn't hesitate to say "Fab Five" when asked to describe the things that this year's class will bring to the team. Individually, Schaefer said her "hard-work ethic" is something she is most proud of and that she plans to be a "big shooter" who adds to the Bulldogs' perimeter attack.
Nevitt, a 5-foot-10 guard from Houston, Texas, could be the model player in Schaefer's defensive scheme. She mentioned her length as an asset on defense, and said her personality will be another ingredient she will add to the mix.
William, a 5-5 guard from Birmingham, Alabama, bolsters a backcourt that loses senior point guard Katia May to graduation. William figures to compete with rising senior Jerica James for playing time. She said "quickness and intensity" are two things she will bring to the mix.
In the frontcourt, MSU figures to have two players who will help Alwal, a first-team All-SEC performer and a member of the SEC All-Defensive Team and co-Defensive Player of the Year. Vivians, the state's all-time leading scorer, and Salter, a 6-1 forward from Tallahassee, Florida, are versatile enough to play with their backs to the basket or to step out and shoot from 3-point range. Vivians said she brings leadership to the team and is ready to help the Bulldogs accomplish all of their goals. Salter said her passing ability is one of her best attributes, which could be exciting considering Schaefer expects his four player, or power forward, to play a key role in his team's half-court sets.
Vivians, a five-star prospect who led Scott County High to the Class 2A state title in 2012-13 and to the state title game in 2013-14, said she isn't shying away from her belief she can be an "impact player." It shouldn't be surprising because it fits perfectly with the confidence Schaefer said each freshman possesses. The desire all of the freshmen have to be "impact players" could be a key to helping MSU realize its goals for the season and make another postseason run. If things play out, though, this year it will be in the NCAA tournament.
"I know I have to help my teammates -- the 'Fresh Five' and the upperclassmen -- do more things that they weren't able to do in the past couple of years," Vivians said. "I plan on being an impact player by doing what I do best and trying to score and help my teammates get involved in the game."
It doesn't matter whether it is "Fab Five" or "Fresh Five." These Bulldogs are going to bring the nicknames back and show they are more than capable of living up to the advance billing.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.