November 3, 2017 9:49:16 AM
Eight is the magic number for the Mississippi State women's basketball team in 2017-18.
Sure, coach Vic Schaefer's team is going to feel the effects of the graduation losses of Ketara Chapel, Dominique Dillingham, Chinwe Okorie, and Breanna Richardson. Those players were responsible for creating an identity that has packed Humphrey Coliseum the last four seasons and has helped raise MSU from an also-ran in the Southeastern Conference to one of the nation's top programs.
Preseason rankings of No. 7 and No. 4 in The Associated Press Top 25 and the USA Today Coaches Top 25 are perfect examples of the respect Schaefer's program has earned throughout the country. The rankings are deserved because MSU returns nine letterwinners from the team that won a program-record 34 games, beat four-time reigning national champion Connecticut in the program's first appearance in the Final Four, and then lost to South Carolina in the national title game. Preseason All-SEC picks Victoria Vivians and Morgan William (first team) and Teaira McCowan (second team) headline a team that will make its debut at 6 tonight in an exhibition against former MSU assistant coach Elena Lovato and Arkansas-Fort Smith at the Hump. Admission is free. The game will be streamed online on SEC Network +.
But those accolades aren't going to help the Bulldogs take charges, make jump shots, or develop the chemistry that was so crucial to the team's historic run last season. That success is best represented in the number eight. Of the 10 Bulldogs who averaged double-digit minutes last season, eight improved their field goal shooting percentage. From Dillingham (+1.5 percent) to William (+14.2), MSU's improvement across the board helped it raise its shooting percentage from 39.7 percent in 2015-16 to 44.5 percent last season. That mark was the highest in Schaefer's tenure at MSU and ranked 28th in the nation. As a result, MSU's scoring went up from 69.2 points per game to 75.9, which was 22nd.
It might be hard to imagine offensive numbers stand out the most when talking about the accomplishments of a team coached by Schaefer, whose nickname is "Secretary of Defense." But MSU's growth is a credit to the veteran coach who has relaxed in his time in Starkville and given players the freedom to grow and to make mistakes. He also has added wrinkles to an offense to play to the strengths of his players.
Schaefer's test this season will be to get Vivians to raise her level. Even though Vivians averaged a team-high 16.2 ppg. last season, she was the only Bulldog who logged double-digit minutes not to improve her shooting percentage. Her field goal accuracy went down from 38.2 percent in 2015-16 to 37.1 percent. That might not sound like a lot, but it is a telling statistic because Vivians took double the number of shots (603) than her next closest teammate (William, 285) last season. Vivians' 3-point shooting also dipped from 30.9 percent in 2015-16 to 28.1 percent a year ago.
Schaefer has commented in the preseason that Vivians worked in the offseason to improve her ballhandling. That work was evidenced early in the team's scrimmage last month when Vivians drove to the basket and used a spin move at foul-line extended to create space for herself to shoot. Moves like that are ones Vivians is going to have to use more in an effort to improve her shooting percentage. Attacking the basket also will give Vivians more looks from the free-throw line. Last season, she shot 62 more free throws (159) than she did in 2015-16 (97). She shot 126 free throws as a freshman.
Vivians will be a focal point of the offense again this season, as will McCowan, a 6-foot-7 junior center. But Schaefer knows teams will pack the paint and try to prevent the Bulldogs from pounding the ball inside to McCowan, who improved her field goal shooting percentage 7.4 percent last season. That's why William, Roshunda Johnson, Blair Schaefer, and Jazzmun Holmes need to emerge as bigger contributors. Schaefer has talked in the preseason about how well Blair, his daughter, and Johnson play together. You can see it in practice. Each player seems to know where the other is on the court and is more than willing to pass up a shot to get the other a better shot. Holmes also has shown greater confidence in the preseason. Her athleticism and confidence could help take pressure off William to play so many minutes at point guard, but she needs to show she can be a consistent outside shooter. Last season, she raised her field goal shooting percentage 6.6 points to 35.2 percent.
Let's not forget Arkansas transfer Jordan Danberry, who could join the active roster after exams in December. Danberry's athleticism and quickness are off the charts. Her addition could give Schaefer a stable of guards he could use to pressure opponents from the time they get off the bus in Starkville to the time they leave the Hump. The question with Danberry, though, remains if she will be able to be a dependable outside shooter.
That's why it gets back to eight. Schaefer doesn't have to stay up late forging new offensive sets. The Bulldogs also don't have to rely only on outside shooting to be their answer. Last season, they were No. 1 in the nation in made free throws (594) and fourth in free throws attempted (813). Those numbers epitomized the attacking style, hustle, and selflessness of Chapel, Dillingham, Okorie, and Richardson. This year's team will be well served to try to duplicate that formula. If it can, it just might find another crooked number to its liking.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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