STARKVILLE — “Slow down.”
Teaira McCowan isn’t sure how many times she heard those words in her first season with the Mississippi State women’s basketball time. If she had to guess, she probably would say she heard them more from MSU coach Vic Schaefer, associate head coach Johnnie Harris, who coaches the post players, and the rest of the coaching staff more than any other Bulldog.
“Last year, I was really nervous about messing up and not doing well,” McCowan said.
As a result, McCowan said she often felt rushed last season when she received the ball, which is why she said she often took a hop when she made her initial move. That hop often resulted in a traveling call and a turnover.
This year, McCowan is hearing a similar message: “Be patient.”
Those words are designed to force the 6-foot-7 sophomore center think about what she is going to do with the basketball when she catches it and then to take her time to make a move to the basket. McCowan said Schaefer, Harris, and the other coaches have worked with her to step to the ball as it is coming to her to avoid making a hop after she receives the ball. When she receives the pass, McCowan said she is concentrating on making an explosive move to get to the rim.
“I think I am coming along really well from where I was last year,” McCowan said. “I am being more patient with the ball. I am taking my time and thinking about what move I am going to make. As soon as they pass me the ball, I know what move I am going to make so I am able to go up and score.”
McCowan is coming off a season in which she averaged 6.6 points and 5.6 rebounds in only 13.7 minutes per game. She also led the Bulldogs with 46 blocks, which helped her earn a spot on the Southeastern Conference’s All-Freshman team.
This season, McCowan hopes to improve that productivity and to lift her field goal shooting percentage from 49.5 percent, which was second among Bulldogs who played double-digit minutes last season. McCowan said the coaches have introduced a new drill, “Quick Ups,” which is designed to have the players catch the ball and high and keep it there. She said the drill works on timing because players aren’t allowed to bring the ball down and they are asked to do a layup before they come back down to the ground.
“This year, it is all about do what you do best and what they recruited you for: score, rebound, box out, be a good helper (on defense) when my teammates get beat off the bounce. That is what I have to get back to.”
MSU coach Vic Schaefer said he has seen McCowan mature from last season. He said she is working back into shape after having ankle surgery in the offseason, and that he is eager to see how much he can use McCowan and 6-5 senior center Chinwe Okorie on the court together.
For that to work, though, McCowan has to slow down and be patient and not try to do too much.
“Coach Harris gets a lot of credit,” Schaefer said. “She has really developed those kids footwork wise. Teaira is so coordinated. She is another strong physical presence.”
Schaefer said several times last season that McCowan needed time to adjust to the physical play in the SEC and how she had to use her size in the paint. He said McCowan has the strength and the length to dominate a game even if she doesn’t score. He feels McCowan’s willingness and ability to embrace that notion could be a big key to the Bulldogs’ success this season.
“I love that kid,” Schaefer said. “The thing we are trying to impart on her is she can dominate a game, but that doesn’t mean she has to get 20 (points). She can literally dominate a game and screw up and opponent defensively by being active, blocking shots, and getting every rebound, just pursuing the ball.”
Schaefer said another key for Okorie and McCowan is getting them to understand it has to be a way of life every day in practice. He said he wants McCowan to make it a habit to make her teammates “miserable” in practice every day. That might mean McCowan blocks a lot of shots or hands out a few bumps and bruises to guards who dare come into the lane, but Schaefer won’t mind because he knows play like that will make his team tougher in the long haul.
Schaefer also knows a center who learns to love to make teammates miserable will relish the chance to make opponents feel even a little bit ill. That, too, will be a process, but it is one that excites Schaefer because he knows McCowan has a ton of potential.
“Those two are improving every day,” Schaefer said of Okorie and McCowan. “I really think they’re going to have a great year for us, and yes you just might see them together.”
McCowan is equally excited about her sophomore season. She said she learned a lot in her first season, especially about how to handle herself in the paint. This season, McCowan said she will work hard not to play behind the player she is guarding because that limits her effectiveness and could lead to her being called for more fouls, particularly when she tries to block a shot.
Even then, McCowan likely will hear those familiar words, so the hope is that she and the Bulldogs will heed them and be able to live up to the lofty preseason expectations they have received from multiple preseason publications. Athlon and the Sporting News have MSU ranked No. 7. Slam Magazine has MSU at No. 8, while Lindy’s Sports has the Bulldogs at No. 12.
“We tell ourselves we can’t look at the rankings,” McCowan said. “It is good to be where we are, but, at the same time, we know what we accomplished last year, but we have to build more to that. What we did last year got us to the Sweet 16, but we want to go further, so we have to embrace what we did last year and keep building on that, too.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.