February 4, 2010 8:51:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Results mean more than the name of the opponents in February.
Mississippi State women''s basketball coach Sharon Fanning-Otis has stressed to her players that it takes communication, focus, and determination to achieve those results.
At the start of the season, she reminded the Lady Bulldogs that a 23-10 season and a trip to the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2008-09 was going to bring out the best in every team they faced this season, so they had to be ready to raise their level of play.
As the 2009-10 campaign enters its fifth month, Fanning-Otis continues to talk about how the Lady Bulldogs can be better connected to deliver more consistent efforts.
Fanning-Otis hopes MSU (14-8, 5-4 Southeastern Conference) can take another step toward that goal at 8 tonight (ESPNU) when it plays host to the University of Alabama (9-13, 1-8) at Humphrey Coliseum.
MSU is expected to have Tysheka Grimes back in the lineup tonight. The senior forward has missed the past nine games with a foot injury. Grimes is third on the team in scoring (11.5 points) and leads the team in rebounding (7.0). Her presence figures to give the Lady Bulldogs another shooter and a player who brings a lot of energy to the court.
Fanning-Otis said Sunday the Lady Bulldogs would have to be patient because Grimes wouldn''t be in midseason form when she returned. She said Tuesday that taking it slow might not be easy.
"Patience is not her middle name," Fanning-Otis said of Grimes. "She is an anxious and an aggressive player, and what she is going to bring us is a sense or urgency and toughness."
Those qualities could be what MSU needs as it enters the home stretch. The Lady Bulldogs are coming off a 69-59 loss to Kentucky on Sunday. The victory catapulted the Wildcats into the Associated Press Top 25 at No. 20 (they were No. 23 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll) and helped MSU improve its Ratings Percentage Index (43) and Strength of Schedule (37), according to CollegeRPI.com for games through Wednesday. The NCAA tournament selection committee uses the RPI and SOS to help it pick the at-large teams that earn NCAA bids.
Last season, MSU earned a bid to the "Big Dance" as a No. 11 seed in part because it didn''t have any bad losses. The Lady Bulldogs can make the same claim this season, but others would argue the team has work to do to make sure it is on the right side of the bubble again.
Fanning-Otis would lean toward the latter, even though she said Tuesday she feels "in my heart of hearts that we are one of the 64 teams."
But just because reporters ask her about the NCAA tournament and she thinks about it doesn''t mean she wants her players to get wrapped up in the what ifs and all of the possibilities.
"We can''t put more importance on one game more than another," Fanning-Otis said. "We can''t panic and we can''t get tight. We have to play. The teams that survive and advance are the ones right now that become tougher and better every day because of the lessons learned."
MSU has learned plenty of lessons -- from the disappointment of home losses to Tennessee and Florida to the elation after victories against ranked opponents like Vanderbilt (twice) and Georgia.
This season, all of the SEC teams have had teaching moments. As a result, MSU is in a three-way tie for fifth in the league with Georgia and Vanderbilt, one-half game behind Florida and Ole Miss. LSU (4-4) and South Carolina (4-5) are right behind that pack.
The top four teams in the regular season earn first-round byes in the SEC tournament on March 4-7 in Duluth, Ga.
Fanning-Otis said the parity in the league this season means any team -- Alabama included -- can beat any other team on any day. That''s why she said it is imperative for the Lady Bulldogs to do what they have to do to ensure their resume is worthy of the NCAA tournament. She also doesn''t want her players to believe anything is guaranteed because Grimes is expected to return to the lineup.
"It gives us another piece to the puzzle. Is it a magic thing? No," Fanning-Otis said. "I feel we''re playing pretty good as a team (without Grimes) and that we''re taking better care of the basketball and taking better shots."
Fanning-Otis said the key is to make sure the Lady Bulldogs continue to do those things with Grimes the rest of the season.
Alabama is coming off a 78-41 loss to No. 18 LSU on Sunday. Junior forward Tierney Jenkins leads the Crimson Tide in scoring (12.3 points) and rebounding (9.6). Sophomore guard Ericka Russell is third on the team in scoring at 11.2 ppg.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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