The Mississippi State women’s basketball team’s history-making season took another step forward Monday when it moved up three spots to No. 14 in The Associated Press’ Top 25 poll.
In the process, MSU (17-0) received 431 points and climbed past Stanford (9-4, No. 15, 405 points), one of the game’s perennial powers, to move to one of the highest rankings in program history. The No. 14 ranking is MSU’s first top-15 appearance since the final 2002-03 poll, when it was ranked No. 13. MSU climbed as high as No. 10 in Week 17 in the 2002-03 season. Stanford was ranked No. 9 the same week. No. 10 is the highest MSU has climbed in its history.
Two seasons earlier, MSU finished No. 12 in the final AP poll. Its finish in the 1999-2000 season is one of the only times the Bulldogs have been ranked ahead of the Cardinal in a regular-season or a final poll.
MSU’s run of seven-straight weeks in The AP poll is believed to be its longest in the national polls since the 2002-03 season, when LaToya Thomas and Tan White led the Bulldogs to the second round of the NCAA tournament and a 24-8 finish. The 24 wins matched the record for most wins in a season. MSU also finished 24-8 in 1999-2000.
The 2014-15 team is on pace to shatter that record. Buoyed by a victory against then-No. 19 Georgia on Friday in Starkville and a 53-47 victory against Missouri on Sunday in Columbia, Missouri, MSU is 2-0 in the Southeastern Conference play for the first time since 2009-10. It also is one of four remaining undefeated teams (South Carolina, Texas, and Princeton) in Division I.
MSU will try to extend its winning streak at 8 p.m. Thursday when it plays host to Arkansas at Humphrey Coliseum. Fox Sports Net South will broadcast the game live. The regional viewing audience will get a chance to see a growing fan base that has MSU up to sixth in the SEC in average home attendance (2,958). Against Georgia, MSU had a season-high crowd of 4,114, the seventh-highest crowd in program history.
All of the rankings and statistics point to a rosy future for the Bulldogs.
ESPN’s Charlie Creme added to the fun Monday when he released his projected field for the NCAA tournament. Dubbed “Bracketology,” Creme has MSU a No. 4 seed and playing host to the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament.
It is only Jan. 6, but it has been amazing to see MSU overcome all of its injuries to win its first 17 games and to climb to No. 14 in The AP poll. Everyone associated with the program believed the Bulldogs were primed to capitalize on the momentum from a 22-14 finish and a trip to the quarterfinals of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament last season. But no one envisioned any of this would come so quickly.
Now that MSU, which also was named the NCAA’s Team of the Week, is knee deep in SEC play, it has to recognize the target on its back is getting bigger. It also has to realize things are only going to get tougher in the final 14 league games. One positive is that the Bulldogs will have time to gain even more traction before they face South Carolina, Texas A&M, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Those four teams have joined MSU in starting SEC play 2-0. The Bulldogs will play all four teams in the second half of the SEC schedule. Three of those games will be on the road.
Whether it is at home or on the road, MSU has to be ready for a different brand of basketball. While MSU still leads the league in scoring at 81.6 points per game, it will have a tough time reaching that mark in the next 14 regular-season games. MSU has the weapons to make a scoreboard pop, but SEC defenses will bump, grind, and claw to make every possession a battle. Through the first weekend of SEC play, league teams have scored 60 or fewer points 14 times. That number is five more than last season and four more than 2012-13, the first year Missouri and Texas A&M joined the league.
That three SEC teams have yet to eclipse 60 points in a league game speaks to the importance of execution, rebounding, and turnovers. It also means players have to come with energy every night. That’s a lot to ask with a Thursday-Sunday turnaround, but MSU coach Vic Schaefer would say that is what you get when you’re in the biggest, baddest league in the nation.
Not many people would have imagined MSU would be at the top of that league through 17 games. For it to stay there, it will need to continue to improve on its field goal percentage defense (third in the SEC, 33.3 percent) and its field goal percentage (sixth, 41.8 percent). MSU also should realize leading scorer Victoria Vivians, who has scored five and nine points in her first two SEC games, will be a target for opponents who don’t want her to go off and carry the team. That means MSU will have to do a better job of getting senior center Martha Alwal involved. Alwal didn’t attempt a shot and didn’t score in 20 minutes against Missouri. The last time Alwal didn’t take a shot or score was against Jacksonville State on Dec. 20, 2012. The Bulldogs can’t afford Alwal, a preseason first-team All-SEC selection, to have nights like that if its special season is going to continue.
Last week, we said there was no reason MSU should be able to draw a crowd of 5,000 for the game against Georgia. MSU fell a little short of that mark, but the atmosphere was great even without a presence of students, who were still away on break. Some of those students should be back in time for Thursday’s game, so let’s see if MSU students — and, for that matter — the rest of Bulldog Nation will come out to support Schaefer’s team against Arkansas. It will be a battle, and any boost the Bulldogs can get from the home fans could be the advantage they need to make it 18 in a row.
From here on out, every step MSU takes will move it closer to history. Why not be a part of it?
Adam Minichino is sports editor The Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.