Victoria Vivians has accepted the mission.
On April 4, two days after the Mississippi State women’s basketball team lost to South Carolina in the national title game, The Dispatch ran a story with the headline “MSU’s next challenge is to raise bar higher.” In the column, a number of areas were highlighted as keys for coach Vic Schaefer’s team to build on the momentum from its program-record 34-win season, its first trip to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament, and its victory against four-time reigning national champion Connecticut in the national semifinals.
Several of the issues focused on Vivians. The 6-foot-1 junior from Carthage was challenged to raise her field goal shooting percentage after it slipped from 38.2 percent to 37.1 in the 2016-17 campaign. Vivians also was challenged to improve her ballhandling and to embrace the idea of taking the basketball to the rim and to take contact when attacking the basket.
Through 13 games, Vivians has checked all of those boxes, has circled a few others, and is playing like a first-team All-American. As a result, No. 5 MSU (13-0) is primed to complete another undefeated run through the non-conference portion of its schedule. The final step will come at 7 p.m. Thursday when MSU plays host to Mississippi Valley State at Humphrey Coliseum. A win would set the stage for MSU’s Southeastern Conference opener against Georgia at 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 31, in Athens, Georgia (SEC Network).
“I just think she is taking better shots and finishing with contact,” Schaefer said. “She is doing a much better job. I think the game has slowed down for her and she has teammates helping her.”
Vivians, who was a third-team Associated Press All-American last season, has improved her totals compared to the same stretch last season. Vivians is averaging a team-high 20.1 points per game and is shooting a career-best 54 percent from the field. Vivians entered the season as a 37.4-percent career shooter (single-season best mark of 38.2).
Vivians has reached her field goal percentage by attempting 13 fewer shots than she did in the same span last season. She also is shooting higher from 3-point range (39.4 percent) and from the free-throw line (83.9). More importantly, Vivians has attempted 19 more free throws, has matched her career-best mark for rebounding (5.8) per game, and is averaging a career-best 2.2 assists per game.
Schaefer said the decision to use Vivians at the four position, or the power forward, in what essentially is a four-guard lineup is paying dividends. The move puts Vivians in a position to rebound more and it creates a challenging matchup for opposing teams, which usually have had bigger players on her.
“It is a tough matchup (trying to guard Vivians),” Schaefer said. “I don’t think there is any question having her at four has contributed (to her shooting well above 50 percent from the field).”
Prior to MSU’s victories against UNLV and Syracuse in Las Vegas earlier this week, Aaron Barzilai of Her Hoop Stats offered some perspective on Vivians’ start to the season. Her Hoop Stats.com analyzes women’s basketball statistics in similar ways to kenpom.com, which offers analysis of men’s college basketball statistics.
The numbers from Her Hoop Stats reveal Vivians has the highest field goal percentage increase of any player taking 10 or more shots a game and shooting better than 50 percent from the field. Of the 768 players who played significant minutes last season and this season, it’s the 15th-biggest jump this season.
Only two other players who are taking 10 shots a game have improved more. Neither one is shooting better than 50 percent from the field.
People are noticing Vivians’ maturation. Against Maine, Vivians drove the baseline from the right corner with a little more than three minutes remaining in the first quarter. She then bounced a pass through the lane to the left block for Teaira McCowan, who converted a layup. Charlie Winfield, a radio and television color commentator for MSU’s games, said Vivians’ evolution has been “remarkable.” Play-by-play announcer Bart Gregory even referenced a label — “volume shooter” — that has been used with Vivians in her first three seasons at MSU. Former Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb was one of the first to use that term in a post-game news conference following her team’s 69-44 loss to MSU on Jan. 29, 2015.
“In the second half, she got hot,” Balcomb said of Vivians, who was 5-for-10 from the field, including 5-for-7 from 3-point range. “There is no stopping her when she gets like that. She is one of those kids who can either shoot you in or shoot you out. She is going to take a lot of shots, and that is her role.”
Vivians’ shooting skills also were discussed on ESPN during the national semifinal game against Connecticut. Color commentator Doris Burke highlighted the fact it took Vivians 63 shots to get 62 points in her first four NCAA tournament games. “That kind of inefficiency can’t beat Connecticut,” Burke said.
Later in the game, Burke said UConn would be “content to let her (Vivians) fire away” after Vivians missed a jump shot from just inside the top of the key after using a high screen from Breanna Richardson. Vivians took the shot with 21 seconds remaining on the shot clock.
But Vivians, who had a team-high 19 points against the Huskies, played an integral role in the victory. She drove from the left wing to the right side of the goal and drew a foul on Gabby Williams. She hit 1 of 2 free throws to cut UConn’s lead to 59-57. She then drained a 3-pointer from the left wing with two seconds left on the shot clock to give MSU a 60-59 lead. The Bulldogs lost possession of the ball on their first set. Vivians opted to use a screen from McCowan on the left side and bypassed a screen from Richardson to get separation from Kia Nurse, which prompted Burke to say Vivians is “fearless as a scorer.”
Schaefer said MSU’s is seeing a more efficient Vivians because she isn’t settling for jump shots. He even referenced another SEC coach who has used the term “volume shooter” in talking about Vivians.
“Now she is a basketball player who has a really good understanding of the complete game,” Schaefer said.
Schaefer said Vivians recognizes the importance of attacking and getting the ball to the rim. He said she has matured and understands how the mid-range game can help her be more effective. Schaefer said Vivians displayed those qualities Thursday against Syracuse, which used a zone defense. Vivians was in attack mode and led the way with 26 points. In addition to going 9-for-17 from the field, Vivians was 7-for-8 from the free-throw line. It was her fourth game of the season in which she has attempted more than six free throws in a game. She attempted more than six free throws four times in 39 games last season.
“You can’t game plan for her because if you do we have other people who are going to be able to hurt you,” Schaefer said. “Blair (Schaefer) can stretch you. Morgan William can go get a double-double. Teaira is a terror right now with her double-doubles. We have so many more weapons.”
Schaefer also credited redshirt senior guard Roshunda Johnson, who he said had two of the Bulldogs’ biggest shots against the Orange.
But there is no denying Vivians fuels MSU. She already has shot 50 percent or better from the field in nine games. The question will be if Vivians can raise the bar in SEC play. The last two seasons, her field goal shooting percentage has slipped 5.7 and 7.9 percent in conference play. The key for Vivians will be to remain in attack mode and for her to take shots under control or in rhythm. If she can do that, MSU will be a strong candidate to challenge for the SEC regular-season and tournament titles and to make another deep run in the NCAA tournament.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.