February 26, 2018 10:43:53 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
The gauntlet is nearly over. Let the selling begin.
As teams wind down their regular seasons and prepare for their conference tournaments, you can count on coaches around the country to start pitching their players for all-league honors.
Let's end all of the speculation: Mississippi State senior Victoria Vivians is the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year. MSU's Vic Schaefer is the SEC Coach of the Year. MSU junior Teaira McCowan is a first-team All-SEC performer.
Those three statements would get varying levels of agreement throughout the league. A case also could be made for MSU senior guard Morgan William, redshirt senior guard Roshunda Johnson, and senior guard Blair Schaefer being named first-team All-SEC. If you think that's a stretch, it's undeniable all five players have played integral roles in helping No. 2 MSU cap an undefeated regular season (30-0) and just the third 16-0 run through the league since it went to a 16-game format.
But let's stick to the two awards that likely will generate the most discussion.
Vivians deserves the award because she game has matured the most of just about any player in the nation, let alone the SEC. When you look at the 30 players who have been nominated for the Wooden and the Naismith awards, which recognize the best player in the country, Vivians' 12.8-percent improvement in field goal percentage from last season (37.1 percent) to 49.9 (through games played Saturday) is second only to Oregon State's Marie Gulich (17.8-percent improvement). There also are only eight players among the 30 players who have been recognized as the best in the nation who were averaging more points per game than Vivians (19.7 ppg.) and 16 players who were averaging more rebounds than Vivians' 5.9 per game, which is a career high.
South Carolina senior forward A'ja Wilson and Missouri junior Sophie Cunningham will be mentioned most as possible contenders for the award. Both are deserving. Wilson, the reigning SEC Player of the Year, has stepped into an even bigger role for the Gamecocks, who finished second in the regular season to the Bulldogs, and is averaging 22.9 points and 12 rebounds a game. She also is shooting 54.8 percent from the field. Through games played Saturday, Cunningham was averaging 18.6 ppg. and 4.9 rebounds.
But Vivians is the SEC Player of the Year because she has elevated her game to another level. She entered the season as a career 37.4-percent shooter. This season, she moved to forward and was asked to play a bigger role rebounding. She has responded with three double-doubles, including an 18-point, 10-rebound effort Sunday in MSU's victory against Kentucky. Today, Vivians likely will be one of 10 players who survives the cut for the Naismith Award.
Vivians' biggest area of growth has come on offense. Be honest, how many times have you watched Vivians this season and seen her pass up shots that she would have taken earlier in her career? The list is too big to count. There is no denying Vivians can hit from 20-25 feet with ease. She has worked hard to erase the label of "volume scorer" that was placed on her early in her career by diversifying her game, attacking the basket, and embracing an extra pass or two to get a teammate a better shot or to allow the offense to work so she can get an even better shot.
The debate likely will center on does the best team in the league warrant having its best player -- Vivians -- win the award. If you have watched women's basketball coverage on ESPN, Wilson has been a popular topic of discussion and has been treated almost as if it is a foregone conclusion that she will be the National Player of the Year. Those conversations beg a bigger question: Is Wilson the national player of the year if she doesn't win the SEC Player of the Year?
Let's hope league coaches don't give Wilson the award based on that reasoning. Let's also hope they recognize the growth in Vivians' game and how she has fit her skills into the Bulldogs' system and helped them make history by winning the program's first regular-season SEC title.
The man who helped engineer that accomplishment also deserves to be recognized.
Schaefer also will have some strong competition, namely from Georgia coach Joni Taylor, who led a team picked eighth in the preseason poll to a 12-4 finish in the league, which was good for third. But Georgia lost to MSU and to South Carolina, the top two teams in the league.
It is also hard to beat perfection.
Now Schaefer probably would argue with you the Bulldogs have been far from "perfect" this season. Still, it's hard to deny the accomplishment of winning all your non-conference games AND all of your games in league play. You can argue that the bottom of the SEC might be down and that MSU caught a break in having to play South Carolina and Texas A&M at home.
That's splitting hairs and looking for a way out of the obvious choice.
Put the on-court achievements aside. Schaefer deserves SEC Coach of the Year honors for all of the work he and his staff have put in to turn MSU into a hot bed for women's basketball. Yes, he and his wife, Holly, saw that was a reality when they came to Starkville in 2012. The Bulldogs' grass roots efforts and their ability to win over fans with hard-nosed, tenacious play have helped pack Humphrey Coliseum. It has been electric in the Hump this season. After watching years of women's basketball in nearly empty gyms across the country, it is refreshing to see fans embrace Schaefer and his team.
Let's hope the SEC coaches reward Schaefer for his hard work as a thank you for providing a blue print of how they can build support in their communities for their programs.
You can't convince everyone to see things your way. That is part of what makes sports great. This season, though, the best deserve to be recognized. Growth needs to be championed. Sacrifice has to be acknowledged and rewarded.
Adam Minichino is the sports editor of The Dispatch. You can reach him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.