December 19, 2009 11:01:00 PM
It''s never too early to start looking at numbers.
When you start the season with dreams of 64 and 16, those numbers can be pretty important, even though the season is only 11 games old.
But the Mississippi State women''s basketball team''s body of work deserves examination as it prepares for its next-to-last non-conference game against No. 12 Xavier at 1 p.m. today.
MSU (8-3) enters the game with a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 97 and a Strength of Schedule (SOS) of 185 (through Thursday). Seven of the Lady Bulldogs'' victories have come against teams with a RPI of 124 or higher.
Numbers like those won''t create any enthusiasm for the committee members who will select the 64-team field for the NCAA tournament.
Granted, MSU''s numbers will improve once it kicks off the 16-game Southeastern Conference schedule Jan. 3 at Auburn. But a loss today at Xavier (7-2), which has a RPI of 9 and a SOS of 13 (through Thursday), would be MSU''s last chance to earn a signature non-conference victory. Wins like that help you land on the right side of the bubble when it comes time for the NCAA tournament selection committee to deliberate.
MSU finished 23-11 last season and earned its first NCAA tournament bid since 2002-03. The 11th-seeded Lady Bulldogs upset the sixth-seeded Texas Longhorns and then lost to third-seeded Ohio State in a second-round game in Columbus, Ohio.
The Lady Bulldogs'' seeding revealed that despite an 11-0 start to the season and zero bad losses they still were one of the final at-large teams picked, even though they were sixth in the SEC, one of the nation''s strongest conferences.
This season, the SEC doesn''t have a dominant team. MSU was picked to finish third in the league by the coaches and fifth by the media. But a more even league could work against the Lady Bulldogs. More parity could mean more teams will have records closer to .500, which could make SEC teams less attractive when the NCAA tournament selection committee convenes.
But the schedule could help MSU. This is the first season the SEC women will play a 16-game schedule. The Lady Bulldogs have two games against the University of Mississippi, Alabama, Auburn, Florida, and Vanderbilt. Only Vanderbilt was picked to finish in the top third of the league.
MSU also plays host to Vanderbilt (Jan. 7), Tennessee (Jan. 10), and Georgia (Jan. 28) and wraps up the regular season at LSU on Feb. 28.
Those games will be ideal opportunities to earn marquee victories against teams that figure to contend for the SEC title.
Until then, MSU will focus on Xavier and do its best to record what would be its best victory of the season to date.
"Xavier has been ranked in the top 10 this year and they have everybody back," MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "They are an experienced team and they have two of the best post players (Amber Harris and Ta''Shia Phillips) we have played against all year and a very good basketball team."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.