Mississippi State's Teaira McCowan (15) and the rest of the Bulldogs will be in action today against Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference tournament. Tip time is noon from Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by: Jim Lytle/Special to The Dispatch
March 1, 2018 10:31:37 PM
Vic Schaefer talked about winning championship when he arrived in Starkville in 2012.
There weren't many, though, who believed the former Texas A&M associate head coach when he said with confidence titles could be won at Mississippi State.
Those dreams turned into reality last month when MSU completed a 16-0 run through the Southeastern Conference to win the program's first regular-season title. The accomplishment was even more special because the 85-63 victory against Kentucky on Sunday in Lexington, Kentucky, wrapped up a 30-0 regular season. It marked the first time since Tennessee ran the table in 1997-98 that a league team went undefeated in the regular season.
MSU's first SEC champion has intensified the talk about championships. Does MSU have the depth to withstand the rigors of three games in three days to win a SEC tournament title? Can MSU then win six more games to win a national title? Does MSU have the same magic to beat Connecticut again?
The answer is a resounding yes.
A year ago, MSU was still learning how to win and adjusting to its role as the hunted not the hunter. It really wasn't until the NCAA tournament that MSU showed the confidence of a team that was capable of winning a title. MSU handled Kelsey Plum and Washington. Morgan William had one of the best single-game efforts in school history to lead MSU past Baylor into the Final Four.
In the national semifinals, the memory of a 60-point loss to UConn a year earlier didn't faze MSU. William again played a starring role by delivering one of the sport's most memorable shots to beat the Huskies in overtime. The loss to South Carolina in the national title game proved to be another painful lesson.
The Bulldogs have put those lessons to good use this season. Sure, MSU coach Vic Schaefer complained early in the season about his team's practice habits and its lack of defense. Those comments have been harder to come by in the last month as the Bulldogs have demonstrated an ability to shut teams down while still scoring 83 or more points per game.
The confidence with which MSU has executed on offense is the biggest difference. The Bulldogs don't sit back and react. They attack. Senior Victoria Vivians leads the way with an aggressive mind-set that dares opponents to stop her.
MSU also knows it has plenty of weapons on the perimeter -- Roshunda Johnson, Blair Schaefer, Vivians -- to spread teams out to open room inside for junior center Teaira McCowan. But having weapons and using the weapons are different things. This season, MSU's ability to share the basketball had made the team special. It also has added to a confidence level that is extremely high entering today's game at noon against No. 9 seed Kentucky in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament at Bridgestone Arena.
There is no sense this will be a one-and-done trip for MSU. Instead, there is a strong feeling MSU doesn't intend to leave Nashville, Tennessee, without a championship trophy. Four seniors make it easier for a team to have that kind of mind-set. That's why coach Schaefer has continued to talk about championships and has encouraged the Bulldogs to dig deeper because there is more work ahead.
This team can reach the ultimate destination. The Bulldogs will have to continue to share the basketball. There are few teams in the country that will be able to match the Bulldogs' number of shot makers. The difference just might be on the defensive end because the Bulldogs have turned up the intensity on that end of the court and have been downright stingy.
In fact, MSU has played defense down the stretch like a team that understands holding an opponent to less than 60 points is essential if it wants to win a national title.
Imagine if MSU can play that kind of defense for 40 minutes. How good can the Bulldogs be if the can duplicate that kind of effort?
MSU has set so many records in the last six years that people sometimes forget how difficult it is to run the table in the regular season. But this team won't be satisfied with only one championship. It wants more and is motivated to turn those title dreams into reality.
Six years ago, those dreams didn't seem possible. Today, they are very real thanks to the leadership of a special group of seniors that hopes to add to its legacy in the next month.
Let the Madness begin. It should be a fun ride.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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