January 19, 2019 7:43:56 PM
Former Georgia women's basketball Andy Landers always is a great person to talk to for insight.
Landers took time out of a busy broadcasting schedule that now has him regularly on ESPN's family of networks or the SEC Network to talk to this reporter about a story. His answers were thoughtful and provided an insight that usually comes with the experience gleaned from 40 years and 944 victories.
Following a conversation that stretched nearly 30 minutes, Landers became the reporter, "How good is Mississippi State?"
We then discussed the accomplishments of coach Vic Schaefer's team prior to its top-15 matchup against South Carolina at Humphrey Coliseum. This reporter said that any assessment of MSU depended on the play of senior center Teaira McCowan, the reigning national defensive player of the year. At 6-foot-7, McCowan is an unstoppable force when she is engaged and "interested," as Schaefer has said several times in the last few years.
This reporter also posited that MSU answered challenges against Kentucky, Marquette, and Texas in some of its marquee games, but that it fell short in perhaps its biggest test, an 82-74 loss to Oregon on Dec. 18 in Eugene, Oregon.
That's when Landers asked another question: "Did the 2017-18 team face a challenge like that?"
Looking back, MSU's senior-laden squad led by Victoria Vivians, Morgan William, Blair Schaefer, and Roshunda Johnson didn't face a top-10 opponent on its home court in a raucous environment. MSU played eight home games as part of its non-conference slate. It also played three games in Cancun, Mexico, and two more in Las Vegas. The biggest tests at those tournaments came in wins against Arizona State and Syracuse. The toughest matchups at home came in victories against Oklahoma State and Oregon. Those victories were part of a 30-0 start to the season that saw the Bulldogs go 16-0 in the Southeastern Conference and win the program's first regular-season championship.
MSU didn't taste defeat until a 62-51 loss to South Carolina in the title game of the SEC tournament. By then, though, the Bulldogs had found their footing and developed into one of Schaefer's best offensive teams. MSU regrouped from the loss to beat Nicholls, Oklahoma State, North Carolina State, and Louisville in the NCAA tournament before falling to Notre Dame in the national title game.
The 2018-19 team hopes to make it three-straight trips to the national championship game. To get there, the Bulldogs have plenty of work to do on the defensive end. They also have to tweak their rotation and find a player or players to emerge following the season-ending injury to sophomore Chloe Bibby.
The injury to Bibby changes the equation because MSU won't be able to rely on her outside shooting and savvy. Instead, players like Bre'Amber Scott, Connecticut transfer Andra Espinoza-Hunter, Xaria Wiggins, Jessika Carter, Myah Taylor, and Nyah Tate will have to seize the opportunity to earn more playing time. Individually, one of those players likely won't be able to fill the void created by Bibby's absence, but the group can bolster MSU's depth and give Schaefer the confidence and flexibility to go with multiple looks and lineups.
That's why the game against Oregon will be a good measuring stick, but it shouldn't be used as a means to make a definitive judgment about MSU. None of the five bench players who saw action against Oregon played more than six minutes. Those players combined to score four points, which was eight fewer than Bibby, who logged 40 minutes. McCowan also scored only five points and had 11 rebounds. Still, the Bulldogs were in control of the game in the third quarter before Sabrina Ionescu (29 points) asserted herself and led her team to a signature win.
To Landers, the loss to Oregon wasn't a defining moment. Rather, it was a teaching moment in which the Bulldogs needed to be tested. Schaefer said after the game the Bulldogs didn't have the toughness, aggressiveness, or the physicality they typically possess. The lack of those qualities played a key role in Oregon outscoring MSU by nine points in the second half.
Landers' point seems more relevant following No. 7 MSU's 89-74 victory against No. 15 South Carolina. Granted, the Bulldogs had the support of a white-out crowd of 10,006 to help them more past the injury to Bibby 35 seconds into the game. Still, the victory against one of their most stubborn opponents showed the Bulldogs do have the toughness, aggressiveness, and physicality Schaefer requires from his teams. The fact that they were able to display those qualities after Bibby's injury and after South Carolina went 10-for-15 from 3-point range through three quarters shows the potential for another deep run into the NCAA tournament.
This run, though, will be different, which is fitting because Schaefer used that word in April to describe the makeup of the 2018-19 squad. The Bulldogs need more from their bench. They will have to be better defensively They even might have to -- gasp -- play more zone defense than Schaefer can stomach.
The injury to Bibby provides an opening for multiple players to make an impression, but they have to understand that doesn't mean scoring. The Bulldogs need players to take charges -- like Espinoza-Hunter and Scott did against South Carolina -- and to play a team game. Most of all, the Bulldogs need to play with a relentless nature they can make all their own. That includes dominating rebounding battles, pushing tempo, and playing with a toughness that won't be denied.
Landers is right that the loss to Oregon shouldn't define MSU's 2018-19 team. The Bulldogs showed who they can be against the Gamecocks. They have plenty of time to build that identity and make toughness the defining characteristic of their squad.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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