February 3, 2016 8:35:06 AM
At 8:25 p.m. on Wednesday April 15, the Mississippi State women's basketball team officially became the hunted.
On that night, MSU coach Vic Schaefer said to the crowd at the team's annual banquet that the Bulldogs would face a different road in 2015-16. In many ways, the 2014-15 season was a coming out party for MSU. It rode wins over Mercer, Arkansas State, West Virginia, and Western Kentucky to a Preseason Women's National Invitation Tournament title that served notice to the rest of the nation. Those victories were part of an 18-0 start that helped the Bulldogs climb back into the national rankings and sent them on their way to a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
With a solid cast of returning players and an equally stout recruiting class coming in, many believed the 2015-16 season would be even better, which is why Schaefer took aim at the expectations less than a month after a season-ending loss to Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Durham, North Carolina.
In recapping the season, Schaefer said he polled the 10 returning players and asked them what they liked most about the 2014-15 squad. The players said chemistry was their favorite ingredient on a team that drew record crowds to Humphrey Coliseum and helped the program make the nation's fourth-largest increase in average attendance (1,435 to and average of 3,755) from the previous season.
MSU has continued to break records this season. Coming off a program-record crowd of 10,626 for a game against South Carolina and its first victory against Tennessee in the series' 37-game history, the NCAA honored MSU on Tuesday by naming it its Team of the Week.
The honor came on the same day when MSU moved up one place to No. 12 in the USA Today coaches' poll. On Monday, the Bulldogs moved up two spots to No. 11 in The Associated Press poll. All of the news comes as the team prepares for a season-defining seven-game stretch that will wrap up the regular season.
As MSU (19-4, 6-3 Southeastern Conference) gets set to play LSU at 8 p.m. Thursday (SEC Network) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, let's examine where the program is as it stands one victory from reaching 20 wins for the third-straight season, which would be another first for the program.
n Attendance: Through games played Jan. 25, MSU was 14th in average attendance with an average of 4,991. That number rose to an average of 5,047 (13th nationally) after MSU's 65-63 overtime victory against Tennessee. With regular-season home games remaining against Missouri, Kentucky, and Alabama, MSU is well ahead of last season's pace and figures to shatter the school-record mark of 67,598 it set last season.
But MSU's success at home won't be a number the NCAA tournament selection committee considers. Charlie Creme, ESPN.com's Bracketologist for women's college basketball, said in a tweet on Tuesday that the committee's selections and seedings are based on Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), Strength of Schedule (SOS), and other competitive factors. He said regional sites are determined by a bidding process, which means MSU likely would be in the running to play host to the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament if it is awarded one of the tournament's top 16 seeds.
n RPI, SOS: MSU learned an important lesson about how RPI and SOS factor into a team's fate last season after Duke received the chance to play host to the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament. MSU felt it had an argument to play in Starkville after it finished third in the SEC with a program-best 11 victories. Unfortunately, overtime losses to LSU and Kentucky in the regular season and a loss to Kentucky in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament conspired to deny MSU a chance to make history.
That chance could come this season, but MSU has work to do. On Monday, the NCAA released its top 10 seeds for the NCAA tournament. The list is one of three the NCAA will do for the first time this season in an effort to increase interest in the sport's biggest event. Creme said MSU was in a group with Florida State, Louisville, and Texas A&M bubbling under the 10th team, UCLA. To break into the top 10, MSU likely would need to win out or go 6-1 and win showdowns against No. 21 Missouri, No. 18 Kentucky, and No. 12 Texas A&M to solidify its spot as the No. 2 team in the SEC.
The numbers show just how big victories in those three games would be. According to the NCAA's RPI rankings last updated Tuesday, Texas A&M (No. 14), Kentucky (21), and Missouri (27) are ahead of MSU (33). All three also are ahead of MSU in RealTimeRPI.com's SOS list: Texas A&M (6), Kentucky (19), Missouri (70), and MSU (75).
MSU likely needs to get its SOS into the 50s or lower to strengthen its chances of earning a top-16 seed. Texas (No. 48) and Maryland (79) were the only teams with SOS higher than 40 in the NCAA's list of top 10 seeds.
n Team, individual statistics: The Bulldogs' breakdown is a mixed bag. Sophomore forward Victoria Vivians is scoring 3.2 more points per game (17.5 ppg., third in the SEC) compared to last season. Her field goal shooting percentage (38.1 to 36.2) also is a little better, and MSU is trending upward in scoring defense (53.3 ppg., +1.5 points), assists (350, +41), turnovers (328, -38), and free throw shooting percentage (74.1 percent, +2 percent).
But despite shooting a better percentage, the Bulldogs have attempted 155 fewer free throws than last season. That could account for the dip in scoring from 77.4 ppg. to 74.7 ppg. because the Bulldogs are shooting virtually the same percentage this season (40.6) as they did last season (40.7) from the field.
There are plenty of other ways you could analyze MSU's progress. It's safe to say junior center Chinwe Okorie (third on the team in scoring at 7.7 ppg.) is one of the team's most improved players. MSU also has shown it can go deep into its bench and get solid contributions. The Bulldogs will need their reserves to be ready because every possession is going to be critical from here on out.
Schaefer said earlier this week that his players understand the importance of the road ahead of them. His hope is that the Bulldogs continue to have the attention to detail that has impressed him and that it translates into better efficiency on offense. On defense, it is hard to argue with MSU's performance against South Carolina or its effort in the fourth quarter and in overtime against Tennessee. MSU will need to duplicate those efforts as many times as possible because the days of sneaking up on anyone are long gone.
February and March is when the hunted show they are worthy of that distinction.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can reach him on email at aminichino@cdispatch. Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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