February 8, 2018 10:02:24 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
If you've watched Southeastern Conference sporting events, you're probably familiar with the ad campaign "It Just Means More."
The initiative is designed to highlight there is so much more to the SEC than the success of its sports teams.
If focused on women's basketball, that ad campaign could signify league teams often are going to face taller defenders, longer opponents, and faster guards as well as experienced coaches with a knack for shutting down the strengths of their rivals.
Through it all, No. 2 Mississippi State has continued to do something that isn't "normal" at this point of the season. MSU (24-0, 10-0 Southeastern Conference) will look to continue its program-record start to the season at 6:02 tonight when it takes on Florida (10-13, 2-8) at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center in Gainesville, Florida.
MSU will try to earn its second victory against Florida this season. In the process, it will try to get back to the level of offensive execution it had in the first part of the season. The play of senior guard Victoria Vivians is a perfect example of how things change in the SEC. Through 19 games, Vivians was shooting 53.5 percent from the field. In the last five games, the senior guard is shooting 42.2 percent. Against Tennessee and South Carolina, Vivians attempted 25 and 24 shots, which are her two highest totals of the season. In both games, MSU appeared to go away from a lot of team sets in favor of allowing Vivians to create off the dribble.
Prior to the last five games, Vivians had attempted 20 or more shots in a game three times (Oklahoma State, Arkansas, and Alabama).
As a result, Vivians has attempted 34.1 percent (102) of MSU's 299 shots in the last five games. In the first 19 games, she attempted 20.5 percent of the team's shots (254 of 1,240).
Vivians' scoring average has moved from 19.3 points per game to a team-high 19.6 ppg in the last five games.
"It's a little bit of everything," MSU coach Vic Schaefer said. "Part of it is she is impatient, especially in dribble-drive. The ball is ending up in her hands instead of playing through her."
Matchups and personnel availability also have factored into the changes in MSU's offense. Schaefer opted to go with a bigger lineup that featured 6-foot-1 freshman forward Chloe Bibby in place of 5-9 redshirt senior guard Roshunda Johnson.
The Bulldogs also have had to adjust because Johnson is coming off an illness Schaefer said has limited her practice time in recent weeks.
Johnson has scored only 35 points in the last five games. Sixteen of those points came in a 71-52 victory against Tennessee on Jan. 21 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Since then, Schaefer said Johnson missed practice time following the game against Ole Miss and "gutted out" 18 minutes in a 57-53 victory against Missouri on Feb. 1.
Against South Carolina, Johnson had only two points in 16 minutes.
Blair Schaefer has helped pick up the slack. The senior guard is shooting 51 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range in the last five games. As a result, Schaefer's scoring average in SEC play has climbed to 11.9 points per game, which is third on the team.
Against the Gamecocks, coach Schaefer also said Johnson or Blair Schaefer were the players to come out with Bibby in the lineup. With Blair Schaefer shooting the ball so well, coach Schaefer said Johnson was the odd player out.
"We have some options. That is the beauty of this team," Schaefer said. "We don't have quite as many as I would like, but we still have a lot of different lineups we can throw out there."
Still, Schaefer said MSU has to find a way to get junior center Teaira McCowan going again. While she had 23 points in the first meeting against Florida and has had 10 or more rebounds in four of the last five games, she also has scored six and nine points in two games, which has lowered her scoring average to 19.3 points per game.
"We have got to get her to finish through contact and to finish at the cup," Schaefer said.
Such are the issues SEC coaches have to address once they get deep into league play. Coaches are going to know tendencies and players aren't going to be intimidated, which puts a premium on execution.
In response to league opponents that are more familiar with his team's sets, Schaefer said the Bulldogs typically add new plays every week. Against South Carolina, Schaefer said MSU added a wrinkle for Vivians to work off a screen that proved effective when she kept her dribble alive.
Schaefer hopes the Bulldogs can get back to executing at a higher level and maintain the focus that has helped them overcome the ups and downs in the first 24 miles of a marathon he hopes stretches all the way to April.
"We have been talking about (our offense) and we have watched film on it and continue to watch film on it and work on it every day," Schaefer said. "When you're running certain things it depends on timing, how you cut it, the angle you cut it at. Timing is really critical as well, and we've been working on all of that lately. It continues to be a work in progress."
NOTES: The game will mark the second SEC opponent the Bulldogs have played twice this season. MSU beat Ole Miss 76-45 on Jan. 11 in Starkville and 69-49 on Jan. 28 in Oxford. ... MSU, which is one of two remaining (Connecticut) undefeated teams in Division I, defeated Florida 90-53 on Jan. 25 in Starkville. McCowan led MSU with 23 points. ... The Bulldogs will try for their fifth-straight victory in the series.
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.