January 12, 2010 9:14:00 AM
The Mississippi State women''s basketball team still has an opportunity to win the Southeastern Conference regular-season title.
Anyone who saw No. 4 Tennessee''s 74-48 victory against MSU on Sunday would have to consider that statement ludicrous.
But the schedule offers MSU a chance to overcome a head-scratching loss and finish the regular season as more than just another fifth- or sixth-place team left to wonder about its NCAA tournament fate.
If that sounds familiar, that''s the predicament the Lady Bulldogs found themselves in on Selection Monday last year. Despite less-than-stellar Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and Strength of Schedule (SOS) numbers on their side, MSU ultimately received an at-large bid because it didn''t have any "bad" losses, it finished 8-6 in a SEC that traditionally is viewed as one of the nation''s top conferences. It also had key league wins against LSU (two in the regular season) and Vanderbilt (in Starkville).
MSU validated the NCAA tournament selection committee''s choice when as the 11th seed it upset sixth-seeded Texas and then nearly pulled off a bigger surprise before falling to third-seeded Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, in the second round.
The promise of last season''s 23-11 season and the program''s first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2002-03 has been a selling point this season. Posters for the team suggest that "taking the next step" will be the mantra for the 2009-10 season.
The results to date suggest more of the same, and that''s unfortunate.
Sunday''s effort was a dud. Before the third-best crowd in school history and a cable television audience, the Lady Bulldogs whimpered through the first 30-plus minutes. One of the few signs of fight they mustered came against the Lady Volunteers'' reserves, and even that matchup could have gone Tennessee''s way.
You didn''t need to be a sports fan to know MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis wasn''t going to be pleased after the game. Fanning-Otis'' comments in the postgame media gathering started strained and grew more agitated in the 17-minute, 42-second exercise.
Fanning-Otis'' remarks and those of senior Alexis Rack and junior Mary Kathryn Govero were the edgiest things MSU delivered Sunday. They resembled the effort MSU delivered Nov. 22 in an 84-55 victory against Maryland in Starkville. The Lady Bulldogs ran, pressed, and looked like one of the 25 best teams in the country.
They have failed to resemble that team on a consistent basis in the past 12 games. A second-half rally helped MSU overcome Auburn on Sunday to open SEC play. On Thursday, MSU sleep-walked through the opening 14 minutes before it realized its defense could stop Vanderbilt. The epiphany carried over to the second half and allowed the Lady Bulldogs to earn a 90-76 victory that will be one of the best victories this season.
But the loss to Tennessee wiped out all of the momentum.
The challenge for MSU is to regain the swagger it plays with when it is at its best. With eight seniors, there is no reason MSU shouldn''t deliver a spirited, 40-minute performance in every game the rest of the season. There are no excuses. There won''t be any mulligans, and the Lady Bulldogs won''t be able to make up for a season of could-have-beens with strong showings in one or two games down the stretch.
With all of that said, the quirkiness of the SEC''s 16-game schedule provides hope. Tennessee will be MSU''s toughest opponent this season, and the Lady Bulldogs won''t see the Lady Volunteers again in the regular season.
A home date against No. 6 Georgia (Jan. 28) and a game at No. 12 LSU (Feb. 28) to close the regular season are the remaining games against teams ranked in this week''s Associated Press Top 25 poll.
That''s not to discount two games against the University of Mississippi, a rematch against Vanderbilt, home games against Florida and Kentucky, or any of the other games.
Picked to finish third by the league coaches and fifth by the media, MSU should win most of those games. Until Sunday, MSU''s 10-game home winning streak showed it plays better at home, even when there aren''t more than 5,000 fans in Humphrey Coliseum.
The problem for MSU is it will be expected to win many of those games. The same can be said for Tennessee and the rest of the games on its schedule. But the Lady Volunteers have to play at Georgia and have two matchups against Vanderbilt and LSU. Even a team as talented and deep as the Lady Volunteers could have one or two stumbles along the way, especially without a senior on their roster.
Georgia also plays a favorable schedule, with a home game against LSU and a road trip to Kentucky looking to be the most challenging for a team already off to a 3-0 start in the league.
That brings us back to MSU. With or without senior guard/forward Tysheka Grimes, who has missed the past three games with a foot injury, this team has what it takes to win a regular-season title. The key will be finding a way to compete and to realize that only 40 minutes of focused, sustained efforts on both ends of the floor are what it needs.
Plenty of potholes -- including a game Thursday at Arkansas -- need to be avoided if the Lady Bulldogs are going to realize their potential and remain in the conference title race. If MSU can''t navigate past those obstacles, it will lose its way and find itself back on the NCAA tournament bubble and without another opportunity to prove it''s worthy.
It''s time to take the next step.
Adam Minichino is the sports editor of The Commercial Dispatch. He can be reached at email@example.com
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.