January 11, 2017 10:33:37 AM
STARKVILLE -- Vic Schaefer knew the challenge he faced prior to the 2016-17 season.
With experience and depth at every position for really the first time in his five seasons at Mississippi State, Schaefer said several times finding playing time for all of his players might be one of his biggest issues coming off a program-best 28-win campaign and a trip to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
Through 17 games, Schaefer has turned into quite the chemist.
With 10 players averaging double-digit minutes and two others -- Ameshya Williams and Jacaira "Iggy" Allen -- averaging 7.9 and 6.9 minutes, respectively, Schaefer's Bulldogs have found a way to make their chemistry experiment work. The result is a 17-0 start to the season that has MSU as one of three remaining undefeated teams (Connecticut and Virginia Tech are the others) in NCAA Division I.
"I think that is what allows a team to be special," Schaefer said. "We don't have kids walking around with quote unquote the I on their forehead. That is unique in today's athletic world, and I think that is why we have had the success we have had."
Schaefer said he saw even more signs of the chemistry on offense Sunday in a 74-64 victory against Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee. The victory was MSU's first in Knoxville in program history (16 tries). It also set the stage for MSU to equal the best start in program history (2014-15) at 8 p.m. Thursday when it plays host to Florida at Humphrey Coliseum. The SEC Network will broadcast the game live. A win in that game would enable MSU to set a new record for wins to start the season at 6 p.m. Monday when it plays host to Ole Miss.
"I feel like we have two strings of offense that are really good," junior guard Blair Schaefer said. "Our first five set the tone. The second string comes in and we try to keep the offense going. I feel like we have more confidence this year, which comes with experience, but I also feel like we get that confidence from each other."
Blair Schaefer said the Bulldogs have that "spark" off the bench where players "aren't so nervous or tight or caught up in, 'Oh my God, if I mess up I might come out." She said all of the reserves know their roles and what they are supposed to do when they come into the game.
As coach Schaefer is fond of saying, he expects his bench players to come in and fix something if it is broken. MSU's reserves accomplished that goal by orchestrating a 13-2 run that pushed MSU to a 41-34 halftime lead. Teaira McCowan came on after Chinwe Okorie picked up two quick fouls and had 14 points in 30 minutes. Blair Schaefer also played a key role with nine points, including the go-ahead 3-pointer with 2 minutes, 39 seconds remaining.
"I don't think (his bench players) are your typical second group," coach Schaefer said. "I think they're all capable of starting. They're all capable of making big shots in that moment, and most of them have."
Schaefer said she is one of the players who has settled into her role. The statistics reflect a higher comfort level, as she already has matched her single-season high of 24 3-pointers. More importantly, Schaefer is shooting 44.4 percent from 3-point range, which is up from 33.8 percent last year. Her overall field goal shooting percentage has improved from 30.6 percent last season to 35.8 percent this season.
"I think I have really gotten more confident, especially with my shot, and I think that comes from my teammates because they get really upset with me in practice when I don't shoot because that is what I am here for," Schaefer said. "I shoot, and sometimes I lose confidence in myself and they are here to make sure I know it doesn't matter if I miss one."
Schaefer has said similar things in her first two seasons, but she said she has a better feel for the "window" she has to shoot the basketball. She said she also is focusing on the things she does best -- shoot and help her teammates on defense by taking charges.
"It is OK if I don't have the mid-range shots because I am smaller (5-foot-7)," Schaefer said. "I have to understand my release needs to be quicker, so it is OK if I am that 3-point threat because people are going to have to worry about me, and if they are closer on me, it is giving other opportunities for my teammates to drive the ball, so it is a lot you have to think about. Understanding a good 3-point shooter doesn't mean that it is limiting my game. It just means it is helping out my teammates in other way I hadn't thought about."
NOTE: Coach Schaefer said Allen is "dinged up" and "can't function." He said she won't be available against Florida. He said the Bulldogs are in a "holding pattern" to determine when Allen will return. ... Fans can join Schaefer for "DawgTalk" from 7-8 tonight at the Veranda. Schaefer will talks about team, which is ranked No. 4 in the USA Today Coaches Poll released Tuesday. MSU also is No. 4 in The Associated Press poll. MSU players also will be on hand to talk about the season and the team's latest win, a 74-64 decision against Tennessee. It was the first win in Knoxville, Tennessee, in program history. Fans are encouraged to come to the show and ask questions or call 866-998-4893 to be part of the show. "DawgTalk" will be carried locally on WKBB-FM 100.9, WFCA-FM 107.9, WWZQ-AM 1240, and WAMY-AM 1580, or via a free HailStatePLUS audio stream (www.hailstate.com/plus). This will be the first of three appearances for Schaefer on the show this season. He also will be on the Jan. 24 and Feb. 15 editions.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.