Vic Schaefer knows what he is doing.
The No. 5 Mississippi State women’s basketball team was still savoring an 83-43 victory against Maine on Sunday when Schaefer looked ahead. Schaefer doesn’t usually like to look ahead, but this time he highlighted the importance of No. 5 MSU’s game against UNLV on Wednesday and its game against Syracuse on Thursday in the Duel in the Desert in Las Vegas.
Schaefer’s reasoning was simple: He didn’t want his players to lose focus with Christmas almost a week away. He also wanted them to realize they couldn’t afford to get caught up in the pomp and circumstance of a city that used an advertising campaign that stated things that happened in Vegas stayed there.
That isn’t true when you’re a college basketball coach and all of your team’s games are dissected multiple ways at NCAA tournament selection time.
That’s why Schaefer reminded the Bulldogs on Sunday they were leaving Monday for a “business trip” that required their complete attention.
These days, the MSU brand causes opponents to perk up, especially ones like unranked UNLV and Syracuse that are looking to earn resume-building victories they hope can propel them into the second half of the season.
Remember, Schaefer is the same coach who has said repeatedly he doesn’t need to lose to regain his focus or to learn a lesson. He doesn’t want his players to relax one iota, either, or believe it is OK not to play your best or to take the foot off the gas pedal a little just because the holidays are here, exams are finished, and school is out.
Instead, this is the time championship teams test their mettle. Through 11 games, MSU has passed every test. The team statistics show a mixed bag compared to the Bulldogs’ program-record 20-0 start last season. This season, MSU is scoring at a higher clip (83.6 points per game) compared to a year ago (79.5 ppg.) and has more assists (180 to 170) and fewer turnovers (142 to 151). The Bulldogs are shooting slightly lower from the field (46.9 percent to 48) and are allowing nearly two more points per game (55.6 ppg. to 54).
Those numbers might not inspire a lot of awe, especially when you consider MSU lost the winningest senior class in program history — Ketara Chapel, Dominique Dillingham, Chinwe Okorie, and Breanna Richardson — to graduation. That group was part of a run that saw the Bulldogs win 111 games in the last four years.
On Sunday, seniors Blair Schaefer, Victoria Vivians, and Morgan William posted win No. 100. If MSU continues its undefeated run, Schaefer, Vivians, and William would match the mark of 111 wins on Jan. 28 at Ole Miss and have a chance to break the record Feb. 1 at Missouri.
To get there, MSU would have to match the 20-0 start of last season’s team. Again, if MSU stays unbeaten, it would earn a chance for its 20th-straight victory Jan. 21 at Tennessee.
Talk about these streaks is even possible thanks to the maturation of Vivians and junior center Teaira McCowan. Vivians, a 6-foot-1 guard from Carthage, has led the Bulldogs in scoring the last three seasons, but this is the first time she is shooting above 50 percent from the field. In fact, Vivians, who leads the team at 19.4 ppg., is shooting a career-best 53.5 percent, which is 16.1 percent higher than her career mark of 37.4 percent.
A year ago, William improved her shooting percent 14.2 percent and increased her scoring output to 10.9 ppg., but she wasn’t the team’s leading scorer. An examination of MSU’s 1,000-point scorers reveals Ann Lashley is the only other Bulldog who has had as big a jump in field goal percentage. Lashley went from 42.5 percent from the field in 1984-85 to 56.1 percent in 1985-86. Lashley averaged 14.1 ppg. in 1985-86. Polly Branch (15.5 ppg.) was the team’s leading scorer that season.
While Vivians has increased her efficiency, McCowan has raised her scoring (17.5 ppg.) and rebounding (12.2 per game) averages. Against Maine, she recorded her seventh double-double in her drive to eclipse the program record of 20 in a season. McCowan is shooting 64.8 percent from the field, which is up from 56.9 percent last season.
It’s easy to get lost in numbers and wonder if MSU can develop enough depth to protect itself for the marathon of an entire season and withstand the rigors of the Southeastern Conference. Historically, MSU’s field goal shooting percentage has slipped in league play. Last season, MSU shot 47.8 percent from the field in non-conference games and 42.8 percent from the field in 16 SEC regular-season games.
Vivians’ percentage slipped from 42.4 percent in non-conference action to 35.5 in the 16 league games, while McCowan’s percentage went from 47.1 to 66.3.
It remains to be seen if MSU’s program-record 34-win campaign and its trip to the national title game last season will motivate SEC opponents even more in 2017-18. Schaefer isn’t taking any chances. He wants the Bulldogs to be ready, even if they have to pinch themselves not to think about a few days off and what might be under the Christmas tree in a few days.
If MSU can stay focused in Las Vegas and take care of Mississippi Valley State on Dec. 28 in Starkville, it should be primed for another run at a SEC regular-season crown, a SEC tournament championship, and a national title.
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 former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.