March 27, 2009
The bar has been set higher.
The Mississippi State women''s basketball team''s mission for the 2009-10 season is to live up to those standards.
"It will be up to them," MSU coach Sharon Fanning said Thursday.
The Lady Bulldogs will begin individual workouts next week that they hope will help set the tone for next season.
That season has the potential to be the best in the program''s history, not just in victories but in the deepest move into the NCAA tournament.
Anything less than a Sweet 16 appearance will be a disappointment.
That might be a difficult goal to set, but the Lady Bulldogs want that challenge and they feel they are ready to do everything it takes to live up those expectations.
"I think we had a good year to set the tone for next year," junior guard Alexis Rack said. "We felt we should have won (the Ohio State) game and that we should be in the Sweet 16. I think we have grown a lot just playing together as a team and knowing what has to be done on the defensive end and who has to have the ball on offense."
Rack said the victory against Texas and the loss to Ohio State showed MSU how hard it needs to play for 40 minutes to compete with the nation''s top programs.
The Lady Bulldogs should be one of those teams next season.
Rack, Armelie Lumanu, Chanel Mokango, Mary Kathryn Govero, Tysheka Grimes, and Diamber Johnson, who all played key minutes, are slated to return in 2009-10.
The addition of guard Marneshia Richard, who redshirted this season after not being able to return from offseason knee surgery, figures to add even more leadership and experience to the backcourt.
MSU will miss the intangibles of senior Lauren Roberts and the post play of Robin Porter and Donnisha Tate, but those graduation losses won''t hurt as much if everyone takes the next step.
The program also has to take the next step. It can''t be satisfied with scheduling like it did this season. A tougher schedule can be a double-edged sword, particularly when you play in a league that is as difficult as the Southeastern Conference.
Fanning already has hinted that next season''s schedule will be tougher and that it will test her players earlier in the season. Return games against Maryland, Utah, and Xavier, at least, figure to come next season, or in the near future. Each of those programs is a top-25 caliber program.
But a tougher schedule, one that includes more games against top-50 and top-100 teams, either home or away, is crucial because it will show the Lady Bulldogs how hard they have to work earlier in the season, which will help them in the SEC and in the postseason.
The Lady Bulldogs also have to find a leader.
Fanning stressed all season that team play, togetherness, and communication were keys to MSU''s success.
She is right, but there are times in close games when a team needs someone who demands the basketball and who takes clutch shots.
Rack, a first-team All-SEC performer this year, is capable of being that player, but she never looked fully at ease being the team''s go-to player. She isn''t one to shy away from taking a big shot, but she needs to embrace a mentality that says "I am unstoppable and I have the confidence in myself and in my teammates to get the job done."
Richard also might be that player.Rack talked Thursday about how comfortable she and Richard are together when they were on the floor. Richard''s return to the point guard position will give Rack more freedom to create and to let her teammates create openings for her.
Richard''s return also figures to help Lumanu''s game. The junior college transfer can break down a defense from the wing but needs to work on her perimeter shooting. Another experienced guard who knows how to find players in scoring situations should help Lumanu, Govero, and Johnson become bigger offensive threats.
The Lady Bulldogs also need Mokango to get tougher. The 6-foot-5 junior college transfer matured during the season and learned how to take the bumps and bruises of SEC play. But she needs to get stronger so she will be able to provide a low-post presence the Lady Bulldogs will need next season.
Rack and Fanning like what they see, but the question remains: Will the Lady Bulldogs embrace a more focused approach and a higher work rate for 40 minutes next season?
If they do, playing in the Sweet 16 and beyond is an attainable goal, and it''s one the Lady Bulldogs are serious about accomplishing.
"It is not putting pressure on ourselves," Rack said of the high expectations for next season. "It is just setting goals like we did last year. From doing good this year and most everybody coming back (next season), we feel we have something to prove."
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Commercial Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.