November 10, 2014 9:15:19 AM
STARKVILLE -- As a point guard, Jerica James knows how to direct traffic.
The senior is familiar with all of the hand signals and the subtle eye maneuvers that allow teammates to work their magic without using words. If there is one signal James and all point guards know, it is when a player grabs the ball and uses one arm to wave everyone off to one side of the floor as if to say, "Get out of my way. I got this."
James said Breanna Richardson hasn't reached that point yet, but she said the sophomore is getting more comfortable and more confident even as she prepares for a new season in which she could spend more time on the wing than on the block.
"You can tell she is attacking, her shot is developing, and she is knocking down more shots," James said. "It is going pretty good for her."
Last season, Richardson, a 6-foot-1 forward from Conyers, Georgia, was third on the team in scoring (9.5 points per game) and second in rebounding (5.9 per game). She started 31 of 36 games, averaged 24.6 minutes, and was part of a top-40 class of newcomers that helped propel MSU to a 22-14 record and a trip to the quarterfinals of the Women's National Invitation Tournament.
This season, MSU has higher expectations for a season in which it was picked to finish eighth by the Southeastern Conference coaches and ninth by the media in the league's preseason polls. It will kick that season off at 2 p.m. today when it plays host to Arkansas-Fort Smith in an exhibition game at Humphrey Coliseum. The game is free to the public. It will be MSU's final game test before it opens the season at 8 p.m. Friday against Mercer in the first round of the Preseason WNIT.
Buoyed by a recruiting class that was ranked 20th in the nation, third-year coach Vic Schaefer has depth at every position and the versatility to go with a big lineup or to go small to press teams all over the court.
That flexibility is part of the season Richardson could see her role tweaked. A year ago, Richardson played primarily as a post player, working a high-low game with center Martha Alwal, facing up to the basket to take 16- to 17-foot jump shots, or working on the block to use her size and strength.
The addition of freshmen Victoria Vivians, the state's all-time leading high school scorer, and LaKaris Salter, a 6-1 post player from Tallahassee, Florida, give MSU four other players (sophomore Ketara Chapel and junior Sherise Williams are the others) who are listed as forwards on its roster. Schaefer admitted earlier this week that those positions might not apply given the depth of talent and the skill level of all of his players. He even said he might be able to go five players in and five players out on substitutions. It remains to be seen if Schaefer will try that this season, but it is safe to say he is looking at all options to make sure he has the best players in the best matchups on the court at all times.
Part of that rationale involves finding more playing time for Chapel, a 6-1 player from Temple, Texas. Last season, Chapel started four games and appeared in 34. She averaged 4.2 points and 2.8 rebounds in 17.1 minutes. She showcased a shooting range and an athleticism to make her mark on both ends of the floor, but, like many freshmen, she had to adjust to the grind of Division I play, especially life in the SEC.
"I need Ketara on the floor," Schaefer said.
By moving Richardson from power forward, the four, to small forward, the three, it enables Schaefer to insert Chapel into the lineup, most likely with Alwal, the team's 6-4 center, and to move Vivians, who is 6-1, to shooting guard, the two, to give MSU one of the league's biggest lineups.
Richardson said she the move presents a challenge because she is used to guarding post players. She said she is learning the footwork to play on the wing so she can handle guards, who she said play at a different speed from post players.
On the other end of the floor, Richardson's size and ability to get the rim could present a matchup problem for opponents.
"I think in the three I have more space to attack," Richardson said. "I kind of feel I have a little bit more freedom."
James, who likely will share playing time at point guard with freshman Morgan William, has observed Richardson transition to a new role. She agrees that Richardson is playing like someone who feels they have a little more freedom.
"When you have a little more freedom and your teammates are encouraging you, you have that positive vibe you can do it," James said. "She has more confidence. Like she said, as far as competing against the different speeds and the different levels play, I think she is has it. She is getting better. There is no doubt in my mind she can play either position and contribute to the team. She has confidence on the outside."
Schaefer hopes to see that focus and confidence from Richardson because he knows how big of a role she can play in helping the Bulldogs take the next step and advance to the NCAA tournament.
"In year three, we are excited about our potential," Schaefer said. "I think we still have to prove ourselves. Like I have told the team, at some point you have to stop talking the talk and you have to walk the way. My expectations are pretty high for this group. I think we have a tremendous opportunity. We still have to go do it."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.