February 16, 2019 11:31:12 PM
It pains Vic Schaefer when he says his team gets out-toughed.
But the Mississippi State women's basketball coach has been nothing but honest in his assessment of his players and his program in his seven seasons in Starkville.
When the Bulldogs weren't very good, he acknowledged it, with the caveat that opponents better enjoy it while it lasted because it wasn't going to be that way for very long.
Time has proven Schaefer to be correct.
MSU has grown and matured as a program and come to a point in its evolution that winning every game is expected. Deep down, Schaefer has been coaching long enough to know that's nearly impossible, but that pursuit motivates him and his staff to continue to continue to try to play the perfect game and the prefect season.
No. 5 MSU has been far from perfect this season, but it has found plenty of ways to work its way out of holes and to play through inconsistency.
Thursday wasn't one of those nights.
"I just want to congratulate Missouri, (coach) Robin (Pingeton), her staff and that wonderful team," Schaefer said in his opening remark following Missouri's 75-67 victory against MSU at Humphrey Coliseum. "They were really special tonight, as they are most of the times that we have to play them. I am really disappointed as the head coach at Mississippi State, but I'm really happy for her and that team. They are one tough bunch. That's my (kind of) team, you know -- tough, physical, aggressive team. I know she's enjoying coaching those kids. I've watched plenty of tape on them, and it's that way every night. Congrats to them, and we will practice tomorrow. That's all I can tell you."
Schaefer usually begins his press conferences by saying he is proud of his team, or he highlights players who had strong outings. His initial comment can stretch for a couple minutes and cover a number of topics. On Thursday, Missouri helped Schaefer get right to the point: The Bulldogs have plenty of room to grow.
Schaefer has insisted throughout the season that MSU has its issues and that it continues to be a work in progress. It's a different vibe than the one he had last season, when the Bulldogs ebbed and flowed but were there to deliver a beat down on nearly every night. Credit that killer instinct to a mature group of seniors that learned how to win together.
It will be curious to see how the 2018-19 team responds. Schaefer has questioned its ability to play defense. He also has wondered recently about its offensive execution. Remember, though, the Bulldogs are still trying to establish a new identity since the season-ending injury to sophomore Chloe Bibby last month.
The defensive concerns have been there all season. They showed themselves again against the Tigers, who won the 3-point shooting battle to drop the Bulldogs into a tie for first place in the Southeastern Conference at 10-1.
"I felt like, all night, I was really fighting the heart thing -- playing hard, playing with energy," Schaefer said. "We got out-toughed and out-hustled just about every loose ball. You know, it was just one of those nights. It happens sometimes with teams that aren't very mature. You come off a big win, like Sunday (against Tennessee), after you played that well. It's just hard. I don't want to take anything from Missouri. Missouri was special tonight, and they deserve all the credit. I thought they controlled it, really, from the jump."
That's a bad sign for MSU. It's also a concern that the Bulldogs haven't had all of their top players on the same page for longer stretches in the same game. There's no denying the Bulldogs have one of the most talented starting fives in the SEC. Some nights, though, the chemistry appears to be missing from that group, which could explain why Schaefer has hinted about concerns all season.
Part of Schaefer's honesty is designed to challenge his players. This is the last try for seniors Teaira McCowan, Jazzmun Holmes, and Jordan Danberry and graduate student Anriel Howard. Each one can continue to play basketball for a long time after this season, but this will be their final opportunity to win a national championship.
That's why it's concerning to hear Schaefer say he felt the Bulldogs had "probably our worst defensive effort of the year" in losing at home. Two seasons ago, MSU rebounded from a disappointing home loss to Tennessee to advance to the national title game. The Bulldogs duplicated that feat in 2018 with only one hiccup before the loss to Notre Dame in the final seconds.
Schaefer would love to get this group back to that position and give it a chance to win. There's no denying, though, that right now the Bulldogs have to be tougher and have several more steps to take before they can hear Schaefer's message and apply it on the court.
Adam Minichino is the former sports editor of The Dispatch. You can email him at aminichino[email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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