September 1, 2014 10:29:38 PM
Editor's Note: The Mississippi State women's basketball team welcomes five freshmen to a program that is poised to capitalize on its trip last season to the quarterfinals of the Women's National Invitation Tournament. Today, The Dispatch will introduce you to Blair Schaefer. For each of the next four weeks, The Dispatch will introduce you to a freshman.
STARKVILLE -- Don't pigeon-hole Blair Schaefer into one role.
In two years at Starkville High School, Schaefer showed an uncanny ability to get to the basket, to create shots for herself and for her teammates, and to lead the team from the point or the wing. The concern in moving to the highest level in the sport in the Southeastern Conference is how those skills will translate for a player who won't be the biggest, fastest, or strongest on the court.
That's why on paper it would be easy to consider 5-foot-7 freshman as an ideal shooter to add to the mix that will be the 2014-15 Mississippi State women's basketball team.
If you do that, you run the risk Schaefer will find a way to beat you with all of the other skills and intangibles in her arsenal.
"She can make shots, and she can make them from a long way away, so that is immediately going to draw attention from opposing teams that they can't double off her," said her father, Vic, MSU's women's basketball coach. "She is really going to stretch defenses and make the cognizant of her which will help our post players tremendously. Blair sees the floor well. She is unselfish -- sometimes almost to a fault. She tries to feed the post. She has done that in the short time we have had her, and she takes great pride in being able to make those passes."
Blair Schaefer is one of five freshmen that is part of another nationally ranked recruiting class coach Schaefer hopes pushes the Bulldogs to the next level. Last season, a talented freshman class teamed with returning players like Martha Alwal and Kendra Grant to help MSU win 22 games and advance to the quarterfinals of the Women's National Invitation Tournament.
This season, Blair Schaefer, Morgan William, LaKaris Salter, Kayla Nevitt, and Victoria Vivians add another layer of depth and talent to a program that will look to climb the ladder in the SEC. Blair believes she will be able to do a lot of things to help her new team.
"I am definitely better catching and shooting," Schaefer said. "My release is getting quicker and I am working on coming off screens and immediately shooting. Hopefully, my game will evolve where I can shoot any way and I will be able to get the shot off no matter what position we're in."
Schafer was a preseason pick to The Clarion-Ledger's Dandy Dozen last season. The list recognizes the state's top players. She capped her high school career by averaging 18.7 points and 5.4 assists for the Lady Yellow Jackets. For her accomplishments, she was named The Dispatch's co-Girls Basketball Player of the Year.
The honor was one of many Schaefer earned in her final two years. As the team's primary ballhandler, Schaefer showed an attacking mind-set that she used to break down defenses and get to the free throw line. She also showcased an ability to shoot from 3-point range and to create shots for her teammates.
Coach Schaefer acknowledged Blair's ability to create shots at MSU is a challenge she will continue to work on. Last month, Schafer showed a knack for scoring in MSU's 4-0 trip to Belgium and France. The 5-foot-7 guard averaged 9.8 points per game, which was third on the team, and was part of a balanced scoring effort. Coach Schaefer believes the challenge Blair will face at MSU will be going against bigger, quicker guards.
But Doug Bush, who coached Blair on the Amateur Athletic Union Alabama Southern Starz in the spring and summer of 2013, believes Schaefer will be able to get perimeter shots off and create them for her. He said Schaefer played an integral role in helping the team win the AAU National Championship in Florida. Bush said his team played many of the nation's top travel and club teams and Schaefer more than held her own playing at the two (shooting guard) and one (point guard) positions.
"I see Blair operating very well within the team concept to get shots and to make good decisions," Bush said. "Basketball is a game, particularly women's basketball moreso than the men's game, of decision-making and split-second decision-making. Obviously Blair is a coach's kid and is a very good decision-maker with the ball. She is going to make good decisions when to shoot the ball and how to move the ball."
Bush said Schaefer doesn't have a shoot-first mentality. But he cautioned teams not to leave her open because she is more than a spot-up shooter. He said she can take players off the dribble or work defenders off screens and shoot the basketball.
Put it all together and Bush is confident Schaefer will fit in nicely at both ends of the floor at the next level.
"She is also smart and understands how to play defense," Bush said. "If she is guarding someone a little quicker or a little faster or a little longer, she can guard them by using space and angles and positioning to be very effective. I don't see that being a real issue."
Schaefer figures to be in the mix of what should be a deep backcourt. Seniors Jerica James and Kendra Grant have the most experience, but they will be pushed by senior Savannah Carter, sophomore Dominique Dillingham, and freshmen Schaefer, William, and Nevitt. Coach Schaefer feels many of those guards are versatile enough that they will be able to play multiple positions and give the Bulldogs a variety of looks. That could be especially advantageous on defense, where Schaefer should be able to mix and match lineups to maintain pressure on the basketball, to dictate tempo, and to be skilled enough to beat teams when faced with zone or player-to-player defenses.
Schaefer said it is a different "feel" not having the basketball in her hands as much as she did leading Starkville High. She said her ability to create last season will help her this season. She also doesn't believe going against bigger, more experienced players will affect her transition to SEC play.
"I know I am not as quick and as athletic as people, but I am quicker in my mind," Schaefer said, "so I have to be a step ahead of people mentally. I feel like if I am a step ahead mentally I will be fine. I will have to anticipate what is going to come and what could happen and, eventually, what does happen.
"Because I have been around the game my whole life, it is just natural now. I have seen so many situations from watching Arkansas (when her father was a coach there) and when we were at Texas A&M and different tournaments. I have seen it all. I think with me being exposed to almost every situation, I think that is helping me be ready for anything that can come my way."
Aside from all of the skills that Blair and the other freshmen add to the program, coach Schaefer really likes the motor and competitiveness all of the newcomers possess. He anticipates that mind-set pushing the program to the next level and, he hopes, back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2009-10 season.
"(Blair) has always played with no fear, again almost to a fault because she has been hurt a few times in her high school and AAU career," Schaefer said. "She takes contact, she understands drawing fouls, understands angles, but, again, her challenge is going to continue to be she is going to go against quicker, bigger guards and she is going to have to continue to learn to deal with that."
Judging from everything Blair Schaefer has seen and accomplished, odds are she will take that challenge head on and succeed.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.