Mississippi State men’s basketball coach Ben Howland, left, and MSU women’s basketball coach Vic Schaefer came out Thursday to see and to help install the first panel of the mural on the exterior wall of Restaurant Tyler that faces South Washington Street. Crews spent the afternoon installing the rest of the mural. Photo by: Brett Hudson/Dispatch Staff
November 11, 2017 12:08:45 PM
The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.
Vic Schaefer and the Mississippi State women's basketball program have been in the news just about every day for the last month.
That's bound to happen when you knock off four-time reigning national champion Connecticut as part of a school-record 34-win season and the program's first trip to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament.
MSU capped its best season with a 67-55 loss to South Carolina in the national title game. It's easy to remember the electricity in the American Airlines Center on an evening when many of the fans rooted for the Bulldogs to complete their journey and capture the program's first championship.
Sports Illustrated even got into the act this week. Its Nov. 6 issue features a story titled "Morgan William's Giant-Killing Shot Is Still Shaking Up Women's Basketball."
Everyone outside of Storrs, Connecticut, welcomed MSU's run to the national title. Along the way, MSU played underdog to Washington and All-America guard Kelsey Plum, to Baylor and coach Kim Mulkey, and to UConn and coach Geno Auriemma. All fell to coach Vic Schaefer's selfless group led by seniors Ketara Chapel, Dominique Dillingham, Chinwe Okorie, and Breanna Richardson. The chemistry on that team was incredible. Few teams could have continued to roll after Schaefer juggled the starting lineup late in the season and into the NCAA tournament, but the Bulldogs kept churning along. Some would argue they even played better once the starting lineup changed.
But it's time to put aside all of the records and highlights because the 2016-17 season is history. A final reminder will come tonight between the MSU men's team's game against Alabama State and the MSU women's team's game against Virginia during a ceremony to raise the program's 2017 National Finalist banner into the Humphrey Coliseum rafters.
Schaefer and William celebrated last season one final time a week ago when they traveled to Bristol, Connecticut, to be a part of ESPN's national media day. It's hard to imagine anyone thought six years ago that MSU would be invited to that group. But Schaefer has engineered one of the best stories in women's college basketball. He has transformed a program that often was an afterthought in the powerful Southeastern Conference into a contender for the league title. He and his coaching staff have worked tirelessly in the community to make Humphrey Coliseum one of the best venues for women's basketball. He and his coaches also have pounded the pavement to make MSU a destination for the top recruits in the nation.
MSU fortified its future earlier this week with the announcement of a signing class that included three top-100 players. Prospects Nation rated MSU's class of Daphane White, Jessika Carter, and Xaria Wiggins the 12th-best class in the country, while espnW had the class as 10th-best. White, who is regarded as the state of Mississippi's top player this year, is rated the No. 48 prospect. Carter, a 6-foot-4 post players from Georgia, is rated the No. 49 player. Both are five-star talents. Wiggins, a four-star recruit, is rated the No. 54 player.
MSU also expects to sign Brittany Davis, a 5-8 guard out of Georgia. She is considered a three-star talent and the No. 85 shooting guard in the nation, according to espnW.
MSU needed to bring in an elite signing class with the graduation of seniors like William, Victoria Vivians, Blair Schaefer, and Roshunda Johnson. William, Vivians, and Schaefer likely will eclipse last season's seniors for the most wins in a season by a senior class.
Future groups will have the same chance because it appears everything is in place for MSU to remain among the nation's elite. No. 7 MSU will kick off that journey at 8 tonight when it plays host to Virginia in the second game of a doubleheader at Humphrey Coliseum. The MSU men's team will play host to Alabama State at 5:30 p.m. in the first game.
There aren't many places in the country where a women's team would play in the second game. That just speaks to the hard work Schaefer and his coaches have done to solidify his claim that MSU is a women's basketball school.
MSU will do it in a "different" way this season. Coach Schaefer used that word to describe the challenge he and his staff face with a team that returns nine letterwinners from last season's 34-5 squad. He will look to William, Vivians, Schaefer, and Johnson to lead the way on a team that doesn't have as much depth and that will look to build the same kind of magical chemistry that propelled it to history.
Teaira McCowan can be as good as she wants to be. Will she be able to play at a high level for more minutes? Victoria Vivians can be a first-team All-American. Will the improvements in her game translate to a higher shooting percentage that will make the Bulldogs' offense even better? Ameshya Williams has the potential to be an impact player. Will the sophomore forward find a way to work well with McCowan and use her athleticism and long arms to be a force down low?
Those are three of the biggest questions MSU faces this season. The Bulldogs also will need Johnson, who was an All-Big 12 Conference player earlier in her career at Oklahoma State, to stay healthy and to be a big contributor. She has 3-point shooting range and can create her shot off the dribble. Her play will be a key because she works so well with Schaefer, who can be one of the Bulldogs' best shooters if given an inch of space.
Opponents likely will pack the paint in an attempt to take away McCowan, a 6-5 junior. They will test Williams or Australian import Chloe Bibby to see if they can hit the 15- to 17-foot jump shot or create their own shots.
Opponents also will dare MSU to beat them from the outside. It will be tempting to fall into that trap because the Bulldogs have an array of outside shooters. But the 2016-17 team was so good because it learned the difference between a good shot and a great shot. As a result, a good team became a great team by playing together, minimizing mistakes, and playing its usual stingy defense.
MSU will try to do the same against a schedule that features plenty of tests. It has been hard for Schaefer to get name-brand programs to come to Starkville, so it's nice to see Virginia, Oklahoma State, and Oregon slated to play in the Hump. MSU also will take on perennial top-25 programs like Arizona State, Green Bay, and Syracuse to get it ready for the SEC. The Bulldogs were picked second in the SEC preseason poll. Reigning national champion South Carolina earned the top spot. Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas A&M figure to be at the top of the pack, too.
It remains to be seen where MSU will finish. The Bulldogs don't have as much experience as last season, but their four guards stack up with any team in the nation. Those four will be counted on to be a driving force in the team's success and to help nurture players like Williams, Webb, and freshman Myah Taylor.
If they succeed, MSU likely will be a fixture in the news for much of the 2017-18 season.
NOTE: After the game, MSU will give away 2,500 replica National Finalist banners in Mize Pavilion. Fans can go to Portals A, N, E, and I at halftime to get vouchers that can be redeemed for the banners.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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