Gary Blair will crack open a “Colorado Kool-Aid” on Friday night and have a front row seat for could be one of the most intriguing NCAA tournament matchups this season.
The game between the second-seeded Mississippi State and the third-seeded Washington women’s basketball teams will present a contrast in styles between a defensive-oriented team and one that might be a little more offensive minded.
For Blair, the approaches of MSU coach Vic Schaefer and Washington coach Mike Neighbors will mean even more because both men have worked for him and he remains good friends with both.
“It is going to be fun,” Blair said Wednesday after a round of golf in which he said he shot an 82. “Vic is a whole lot more intense than Mike. Vic is going to be watching film forever trying to see everything he can get. Mike is more carefree. Vic’s workouts are going to be harder and longer. Mike’s workouts are going to be completely different.
“There are different ways to do it. If you’re looking at (Kentucky coach John) Calipari and (Louisville coach Rick) Pitino, there are different ways to win in your style.”
MSU (31-4) and Washington (29-5) will meet at 6 p.m. Friday (ESPN2) for a chance to advance to the Elite Eight. The winner of that game will take on the winner of the game between top-seeded Baylor and fourth-seeded Louisville at a time to be determined Sunday. The winner of that game will advance to the Final Four in Dallas.
Blair is going to enjoy the next few weeks because his coaching tree has plenty of limbs that are still active. Baylor coach Kim Mulkey also worked for Blair, but another head-to-head matchup of Blair assistant coaches will have to wait a few days. The ability of MSU to handle Washington senior All-American Kelsey Plum will be one of the biggest storylines that will determine which team advances. On Monday, Plum scored 38 points to lead Washington to a 108-82 victory against sixth-seeded Oklahoma. In the process, Plum broke former Southwest Missouri State great Jackie Stiles’ record for most points in a single season. In February, Plum, who now has 1,080 points this season, passed Stiles to become the NCAA’s all-time scoring leader. She is averaging 31.8 points per game and is shooting 53.3 percent from the field.
Not only does Blair have a unique perspective about the coaches, but he also has a special take on Plum and Stiles. While Blair was head coach at Arkansas, his program played Stiles and Southwest Missouri State three times from 1997-99. Stiles scored 29 and 19 points in wins in the first two seasons before Arkansas limited her to 13 points in a 64-58 victory on Dec. 8, 1999. Schaefer, who was an assistant and an associate head coach for Blair at Arkansas, smiled Tuesday when he saw the boxscores of the games and had vivid memories of the final game in that series because they nearly held Stiles to less than 10 points.
Blair recruited Stiles and said she was a special player.
“She had the best individual workout that I have ever seem,” Blair said. “Her individual workout, which she did for years and years and years after college, was right their with (former Tennessee great) Shanna Zolman,” Blair said. “Kelsey Plum’s is right there with the from what I understand. That is the difference. Most kids are not going to sacrifice the individual time to do those type of workouts. That is what separates Steph Curry, LeBron (James), and the Kobe (Bryants) They will put in the extra time. They are not just putting up shots. They are putting game-situation shots up and working on the mental aspect of it. That is what made Stiles so tough.”
Blair also has gone up against Plum when she was a freshman and a sophomore at Washington. In 2013-14, Blair said Courtney Walker and Jordan Jones played key defensive roles in helping to hold Plum to four points in 29 minutes in Texas A&M’s 74-68 victory. That was the only time that season Plum didn’t score in double figures. The following season, Plum scored 32 points, had five rebounds, and handed out five assists in Washington’s 70-49 victory.
“Plum and Stiles are similar in a lot of ways,” Blair said. “One of the things Stiles didn’t have is someone setting screens like (senior center Chantel Osahor),” Blair said. “That kid knows the game as well as Danielle Adams (who was a fixture on Texas A&M’s 2011 team that won the national championship).”
Blair credits Neighbors for putting Plum in situations that allowed her to excel. He said she is stronger than Stiles, but that Stiles was quicker. He said he is eager to see if Schaefer, who he said has a “very, very good defensive team,” will be able to outlast Neighbors, who he said has a “very, very good offensive team.”
Either way, Blair will enjoy watching the game because he knows both men have worked hard to get to the Sweet 16. In fact, Blair said he did his “best recruiting job” to get Neighbors to join his coaching staff at Arkansas as a director of operations. He said Neighbors used to drive him to all of his recruiting trips but that he couldn’t go into the gym, so he had to sit out in the car, where he said Neighbors worked on Xs and Ox and studied about the nation’s top recruits.
Neighbors, a native of Greenwood, Arkansas, was a successful was a successful girls high school basketball coach in Arkansas prior to joining Blair at Arkansas in the first of his two stints at the school.
“Mike and I might talk two times a week. Vic and I might talk two times a week,” Blair said. “We share ideas and thoughts. That is what friends do. In this business, you better have someone on the other end you can trust and share some of your rants and your vents with. You can’t just go out and have it with just your assistants. You have to have somebody who is your answering bell, and Vic and Mike have been that for me ever since I met them. They’re great friends, and now I am going to get to see them go to battle.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.