STARKVILLE — It’s a familiar refrain, but it’s one Mississippi State women’s basketball coach Vic Schaefer will say a lot In January and February.
“It’s great we are 14-0 in non-conference, but it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t take care of the next two months,” Schaefer said Friday in a media gathering to preview his team’s Southeastern Conference opener against LSU at 2 p.m. today (SEC Network) at Humphrey Coliseum.
MSU is the only remaining undefeated team in the SEC, and one of five unbeatens in Division I. Buffalo and Utah lost Friday night to leave MSU standing with California, Connecticut, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia.
At No. 5, MSU also is the highest ranked SEC team in The Associated Press Top 25. South Carolina (No. 6) and Kentucky (No. 17) are the other ranked teams. Tennessee, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, and Ole Miss are also receiving votes.
In all practical purposes, though, all of those numbers don’t mean anything as teams across the nation start the second phase of their seasons. For MSU, the second phase of the 2016-17 campaign will involve 16 “rivalry games,” as Schaefer likes to call them. Those games often are “knock-down, drag-out” affairs — another phrase Schaefer is fond of using to describe SEC games.
If you look at the latest Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) numbers, this season looks like it will follow that storyline. The SEC is first in conference RPI through games played Dec. 23. Four teams are in the top 10, with South Carolina leading the way at No. 3. Mississippi State is next at No. 5, while Kentucky is No. 8 and LSU is No. 9.
Ole Miss (109) and Alabama (118) are the only SEC teams not in the RPI top 100 in the nation. The NCAA uses RPI to gauge the strength of teams when it selects its field of 64 teams.
The numbers that figure to mean to most for the Bulldogs are field goal percentage and field goal percentage defense. The second one isn’t surprising given the importance Schaefer places on defense. MSU enters conference play 11th in the SEC in that category at 39 percent, which isn’t bad, but Schaefer would like to see that number drop at least to the mid-30s. The return of senior Dominique Dillingham, who missed six games recovering from knee surgery, should help the Bulldogs in that cause.
Field goal percentage likely will be the most important number for MSU. The Bulldogs lead the SEC in that category at 47.8 percent. As a result, they also are first in the league in scoring margin at 28.9 points per game. If the season ended today, MSU’s field goal shooting percentage would be the second-best mark in the history of a program that dates back to 1975-76. MSU’s 1980-81 team hold the program record for highest field goal shooting percentage at 48.1 percent. Only four times — 1980-81, 1987-88, 1999-2000, and 2001-02 — have the Bulldogs shot 45 percent from the field or better.
In victories against Alabama State and Northwestern State last month, MSU showed what formula it can use to keep its field goal shooting percentage at the top of the SEC. The Bulldogs showed a willingness in both games to work the ball inside and then kick it back out to open shooters. The Bulldogs also displayed an ability to make the next pass to a player who had an even better shot. MSU also used its defense to get into the passing lanes to create turnovers that led to transition baskets.
Schaefer knows his team will see a lot of zone defenses designed to force the Bulldogs to prove they can beat teams from the perimeter. He wouldn’t expect anything less in a league he feels has tremendous parity.
“It is great what we have accomplished to date, but it doesn’t matter if we do not take care of business in the SEC,” Schaefer said. “In this league, you better be ready to play every night.”
Schaefer said senior forward Ketara Chapel, who missed the game against Northwestern State due to an illness, practiced Friday for the first time, all the way through. He said junior transfer Roshunda Johnson, who also missed the game against Northwestern State and had a boot on her left foot, tried to practice Friday and made it through about half of it. He said freshman Jacaira “Iggy” Allen “did well” and made it through practice.
The health of those players will determine if MSU will be able to use its depth as another advantage. Schaefer has shown a willingness to go 10 or more deep in the first 14 games. With young players like Allen and freshman forward Ameshya Williams providing a boost of energy off the bench, Schaefer can mix and match lineups to wear opponents down. The Bulldogs’ depth is one of the reasons why they are first in the SEC in offensive rebounding (16.1 per game). Their experience helps explain why they are first in the league in turnover margin (+9.0) and fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.2).
With so many impressive statistics, it’s easy to see how MSU has climbed to a program-best ranking in The AP and the USA Today polls. Starting today, their mission is to show they can back those numbers up in arguably the deepest and most competitive leagues in the nation.
“I think they understand what is coming down the pipe,” Schaefer said. “Now it is a matter of preparation. Everybody plays hard and prepares. What is going to be our advantage? That is what we have to figure out.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.