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Minichino column: No. 2 MSU controls destiny as it hits home stretch of schedule

 

Adam Minichino

 

 

OXFORD  

 

There are going to be a lot of numbers thrown around in the next two months as the regular season winds down and teams prepare for conference tournaments and the Big Dance. 

 

At 22-0 and 8-0 in the Southeastern Conference, the No. 2 Mississippi State women's basketball team controls its destiny. With a two-game lead against everyone in the SEC except Georgia, MSU has positioned itself to win its first regular-season SEC title. 

 

Nationally, MSU and Connecticut are the only remaining undefeated teams in Division I women's basketball. As a result, MSU is in prime position to earn one of four overall No. 1 seeds for the NCAA tournament. A top-four seed would ensure the Bulldogs would play at home in the first two rounds of the 64-team tournament. 

 

MSU likely will face its biggest challenges to its streaks and its seedings in the next seven days. At 7:30 p.m. Thursday (SEC Network), MSU will take on No. 15 Missouri in Columbia, Missouri. After that, MSU will play host to No. 7 South Carolina at 6 p.m. Monday (ESPN2) at Humphrey Coliseum. Last season, South Carolina beat MSU in the regular season, in the SEC tournament title game, and in the national title game. 

 

SEC games against Florida, Kentucky (two), Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, and Auburn will round out the regular season. 

 

As MSU gears up for two nationally televised battles, let's look at two numbers to get a better sense of what MSU has accomplished. 

 

15: That's the number of teams in The Associated Press' Top 25 this week that have suffered losses to unranked teams. 

 

Think about that when you consider MSU didn't play its sharpest game Sunday but it still beat Ole Miss by 20 points in Oxford. 

 

13: The number of teams in this week's AP poll that have lost games to ranked or unranked teams by 20 or more points. 

 

It's one thing to talk about growing parity in the women's game, but there used to be a time when ranked teams didn't have as much trouble holding serve. Granted, more ranked teams are scheduling ranked opponents in an effort to strengthen their schedules, but there is a difference between playing a game to boost your Strength of Schedule (SOS) and Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) for the NCAA tournament selection committee and suffering a bad loss that negates any of that benefit. 

 

MSU's two closest games against Arizona State and Oklahoma State were against teams that likely will earn bids to the NCAA tournament. Those are MSU's only games that have been decided by less than 10 points. 

 

Let those numbers sink in. 

 

MSU hasn't had very many "bad nights." The 69-49 victory against Ole Miss likely would qualify as the one MSU coach Vic Schaefer would like to forget the most. Aside from a 19-4 first quarter, MSU looked out of sorts on offense and had to battle through foul trouble to Victoria Vivians and Teaira McCowan.  

 

Just as MSU hasn't had many off games, Vivians and McCowan, the team's leading scorers, have avoided foul difficulty, as have their teammates. The ability to stay on the court has been important because it has helped the Bulldogs bring along reserves like Chloe Bibby, Zion Campbell, Jordan Danberry, and others at a slower pace.  

 

Still, the Bulldogs' response to losing two of their top players has to be a source of concern for Schaefer. There likely won't be too many teams that will have the size in the post to challenge McCowan, a 6-foot-7 junior center. Vivians, though, likely will face a few bigger players and potential matchup problems as MSU moves into the postseason. 

 

The flip side of that is Vivians will present an equal challenge for the opponent because the 6-1 senior has the ability to take slower players off the dribble and to draw bigger defenders away from the basket to open lanes for her teammates. 

 

As much as matchups will matter, a bigger issue might be how MSU responds from the game against Ole Miss. Schaefer's disappointment was evident throughout his post-game media session. When Schaefer was asked if he felt the game and his reaction to it was going to get the attention of his players, Schaefer asked Vivians to answer the question. 

 

"Us as a team -- I am not even going to say everybody -- we kind of responded in a negative way," Vivians said. "I feel that comes with maturity. We need to just grow up. I know I had a little attitude and I showed it on my face and I tried to get out of it in the fourth quarter and just smile a little bit, but I feel like it comes with maturity where our team just has got to grow up and just buy into what he is saying." 

 

Schaefer reiterated that leadership and maturity would be the things that kept MSU from winning a national title. He said it would be easy to "sugar coat" everything and not address his team's lack of mental toughness, but he prefers to go right at the issue by challenging his players. The approach has worked throughout Schaefer's time in Starkville. The final numbers will indicate whether the players respond to their coach and deliver the level of play he knows it will take the 2017-18 team to win one more game than last season's squad. 

 

"Maybe they will wake up," Schaefer said. "Tori is one of my seniors. I have always coached her harder and demanded more of her than anybody on my team and she has always responded. I ain't going anywhere without her. I love the kid. It doesn't have anything to do with how I feel about her, but I need her to step outside of her comfort zone a little bit." 

 

Schaefer said Vivians has been "on point" for two weeks in practice. He said he needs her to be smarter when things turn in a game, and that the players need to take a breath or a timeout when things start to go crazy and learn from past games when teams go after you. 

 

"She is warrior. I love her to death, but I need her to help me in some other areas," Schaefer said of Vivians. "I know she can do it. This team is too good not to do it." 

 

NOTE: Fans can talk with Schaefer from 7-8 tonight on another edition of DawgTalk at The Veranda in Starkville. Fans unable to attend are encouraged to tweet questions to MSU's official Twitter account, @HailStateWBK. 

 

Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can email him at [email protected] You can follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.

 

Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.

 

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