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Expectations rise for MSU's next step in NCAAs

 

Adam Minichino

 

 

The awards continue to roll in for the Mississippi State women's basketball team. 

 

On Tuesday, sophomore Victoria Vivians and junior Dominique Dillingham were named to The Associated Press' All-Southeastern Conference team. Vivians, the Bulldogs' leading scorer at 17.2 points per game, earned first-team honors, while Dillingham, who leads the team with 49 charges taken, received honorable mention accolades. 

 

The honors were the latest to come in another history-making season that will continue at 1:30 p.m. Friday (ESPN2) when No. 5 seed MSU (26-7) plays host to No. 12 seed Chattanooga (24-7) in the first round of the NCAA tournament's Bridgeport Regional at Humphrey Coliseum. MSU earned the chance to play host to the annual event for the first time because No. 4 Michigan State is unable to play host to the event due to the girls basketball state tournament at its home venue. No. 4 Michigan State will take on No. 13 seed Belmont at 11 a.m. Friday. The winners will play at a time to be determined Sunday for a chance to advance to the Sweet 16 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. 

 

In many ways, it is amazing that coach Vic Schaefer, associate head coach Johnnie Harris, and the rest of the coaching staff has led a turnaround in four short years. The Bulldogs struggled through dreary attendance figures and a 13-17 season in Schaefer's first year in Starkville. Since then, the trajectory has been going up at an alarming speed. Now the expectations have gone from drawing a few thousand fans to speculation that the Bulldogs could sell out Humphrey Coliseum if they play Sunday in the second round of the NCAA tournament. 

 

Schaefer and MSU Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin might be the only people who imagined it could happen. After former coach Sharon Fanning-Otis announced her retirement in 2012, Stricklin made the important first step and showed MSU was committed to building a championship women's basketball program. He didn't settle for a young coach or an inexperienced coach. He went after a veteran who had been a head coach at Sam Houston State, but he targeted Schaefer because of the success he was a part of at Arkansas and Texas A&M. In that time as an assistant and as an associate head coach, Schaefer earned the nickname "Secretary of Defense."  

 

That nickname has rubbed off on the Bulldogs. You only need to watch MSU play one time to see the players are a reflection of their coach. They dive on the floor for loose balls. They sacrifice their bodies by taking charges. They also have fun after the games and go into the stands to talk to fans of all ages. They have been the most engaging pests MSU fans have come to love in a long time. 

 

The fact that MSU drew more than 80,000 fans and averaged more than 5,000 fans for its home games is unbelievable. I never imagined it would happen. Unfortunately, a telephone call I received Wednesday morning reminded me how difficult a journey it has been for the MSU women. The caller claimed that the MSU women "weren't worth a flip" and asked why The Dispatch was devoting so much space to the team.  

 

I have received several of those phone calls in more than 25 years of covering women's basketball. I had the good fortune to cover the Connecticut women's basketball team at the beginning of its rise to prominence. I saw coach Geno Auriemma go from a old-fashioned arena to a new pavilion and build support for his program in a similar way to how Schaefer has done it. The UConn fans, like the MSU supporters, craved a winner and happily jumped on the bandwagon and have been enjoying the ride ever since. Now UConn is the standard by which all other programs are measured. That's a significant statement considering UConn used to play in a field house that had a leaky roof. 

 

MSU has traveled a similar road. I don't recall Humphrey Coliseum's roof leaking, but the doubters and the skeptics always have been here. There also are plenty of people who won't pay attention because it is women's basketball, and those people believe women's basketball can't be as good as the men's game. 

 

Trust me, there is just as much good women's basketball being played these days as there is men's basketball, and vice versa. If you need proof, come to Humphrey Coliseum this weekend. You'll get a chance to see a Hall of Fame coach (Chattanooga's Jim Foster), an up-and-coming coach (Belmont's Cameron Newbauer), and one of the game's best players (Michigan State's Aerial Powers). Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant is a pretty good one, too. There won't be dunks or alley oops, but there likely will be plenty of 3-pointers and offensive and defensive execution in half-court sets.  

 

If MSU has its way, there also will be plenty of charges and floor burns. That's the Bulldogs' way. They are at their best when they can impose their will on opponents and take them out of their game. Their success in the last three seasons has helped them put more than 10,000 fans in the seats in Humphrey Coliseum for a game. If Schaefer gets his wish, MSU will have a chance to do it again Sunday. It also could have a shot at setting a new record for wins (28) in a season. 

 

Four years ago, that seemed like a dream. But the team's maturation in the last three seasons has made a believer out of this reporter and plenty of fans. Buckle in. It's going to be a fun ride. 

 

Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. He can be reached at aminichino@cdispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.

 

Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.

 

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