Mississippi State women’s basketball coach Vic Schaefer, left, talks with senior guard Jordan Danberry during a break in the action in the team’s Maroon-White scrimmage on Oct. 23 at Humphrey Coliseum. Photo by: Jim Lytle/Special to The Dispatch
November 6, 2018 10:51:55 AM
The signs of a healthy program are everywhere.
The Mississippi State women's basketball team landed at No. 6 in The Associated Press Preseason Top 25. For full disclosure, this writer, who is a voter in that poll, put MSU at No. 7. The USA Today Coaches and the espnW polls also have the Bulldogs at No. 6. Factor in a No. 6 ranking from Street and Smith, a No. 9 from Lindy's, and a No. 14 from Athlon and it's safe to say there's a consensus that the Bulldogs will be one of the nation's top teams in 2018-19.
"I think there is a respect factor with our returning players, as well it says a lot about our recruiting class," Schaefer said. "It is just something for you guys to kind of look at and talk about, but we have to go live it now, and when I say live it we have to live it every day."
How many times have you seen a program that has advanced to back-to-back national title games sustain that level of preseason expectations after losing four starters?
The graduation losses of Victoria Vivians, Roshunda Johnson, Blair Schaefer, and Morgan William haven't diminished coach Vic Schaefer's drive to bring a national title to Starkville. The addition of talented freshmen Jessika Carter and Xaria Wiggins are just two more examples of the ability of Schaefer, associate head coach Johnnie Harris, and the rest of the staff to attract elite talent.
Perhaps that's why it's not surprising to see No. 6 MSU on such a lofty preseason perch as its prepares to play host to Southeast Missouri State at 7 p.m. Tuesday in its season opener. The return of senior center Teaira McCowan, who is arguably the most dominating post player in the country, immediately grants MSU access to discussion of the nation's top teams. The addition of graduate transfer Anriel Howard gives the Bulldogs an "Energizer bunny," as described by teammate Chloe Bibby, to fuel the team as it tries to duplicate the magic from a program-record 37 win season.
Schaefer has said throughout the preseason that his team, which is going to look "different" from the high-scoring squad of 2017-18, is a "looong" way away from being ready. It is open for debate how long Schaefer really thinks his team is away from being prepared. He had said he feels the team's defense isn't up to snuff, but you would expect that from a coach with the nickname of "Secretary of Defense."
Coaches usually are going to take a pessimistic view of their team, especially when they lose four starters. This season, though, has the ingredients to surprise. In Jordan Danberry and Jazzmun Holmes, you have guards who are ready to step into bigger roles. Each one has shown flashes they can contribute, but their challenge is to do more. Bibby, the team's designated shooter given the continued uncertainty surrounding the eligibility of Connecticut transfer Andra Espinoza-Hunter, will be counted on to shoulder an even bigger burden. Already an accomplished international player, Bibby's challenge will be to be more consistent and to take pressure off McCowan by hitting more shots.
"Role" players like Zion Campbell, Bre'Amber Scott, Nyah Tate, and redshirt sophomore Myah Taylor also will need to raise their games. Schaefer already has stressed the importance of getting in the gym to do extra work. Those additional hours will be crucial if the Bulldogs are going to take the next step.
"I am highly motivated to get these kids there (to the national championship game)," Schaefer said. "I am highly motivated to get my seniors there again, and I want them to be highly motivated."
On Monday, Schaefer said he saw Bibby in the gym taking extra shooting practice as he did his elliptical workout. That's a good sign. With Howard in tow, there's no doubt she will motivate her teammates to try to equal her energy. That will be a tall order. If you have seen the former Texas A&M standout play, you know her motor never seems to stop. She is perfectly happy grabbing rebounds, bringing the ball up the floor, passing to a teammate, and moving around to get a shot. Imagine if the rest of the Bulldogs absorb that infectious energy and become a pack of Dominique Dillinghams and start diving on the court and losing their headbands. If 7,000 in the Hump sounded like 70,000, there is no doubt MSU fans will make those first strains of greatness sounds like whispers.
That's the plan Schaefer when he and his wife, Holly, first looked into MSU and considered leaving Texas A&M. In six seasons, Schaefer has orchestrated one of the sports greatest transformations and energized a fan base to support women's basketball like virtually no other.
Get ready for a wild ride. If Espinoza-Hunter and Ole Miss transfer Promise Taylor become eligible immediately, the expectations will go even higher. Without them, this year's team has the potential to be just as exciting and entertaining. There likely will be lower-scoring games, but there's no denying these Bulldogs will be any less entertaining.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can reach him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.