STARKVILLE — Vic Schaefer knows what it is like to play the underdog.
Often overlooked and underestimated in Schaefer’s first few seasons as women’s basketball coach at Mississippi State, the Bulldogs made up for what they lacked on paper and on their resumes by playing tenacious defense and outworking opponents.
This season, MSU has climbed to No. 3 in the nation in The Associated Press and USA Today Coaches polls on the strength of an offense that leads the Southeastern Conference in scoring (86.4 points per game) and the experience of a starting lineup that features four senior guards.
Schaefer’s move to a four-guard lineup has put MSU in position where it isn’t overlooked but undersized. In all but four games this season, MSU has faced taller players at three or more positions. The Bulldogs have been outsized at four positions in three games and at all five in one (Virginia).
Despite that disparity, MSU has excelled in other areas — turnover margin, field goal percentage, and 3-point shooting percentage, among others — to start the season 19-0 and 5-0 in the SEC.
At 2 p.m. today (ESPN2), MSU will look to extend that streak to 20 to open the campaign for the second-straight season when it takes on No. 6 Tennessee (16-2, 4-1) at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“We’ve had it all year,” Schaefer said when asked how he felt his players would react to going against a bigger, longer lineup. “Our kids are prepared. They know where it is our advantage versus where it might be our opponents’ advantage. We understand that piece extremely well and work really hard every day at combating that.”
In league play, MSU is second in field goal shooting percentage (48.5), third in 3-point shooting percentage (37.7), first in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.4), and first in turnover margin (8.6).
Tennessee likely will combat MSU with a starting lineup that will feature four players 6-foot or taller. The Lady Vols figure to have a size advantage at four of five positions. Junior center Teaira McCowan, who is 6-7, is the only player who figures to have a size advantage going up against redshirt senior Mercedes Russell, who is 6-6.
Tennessee has used its size to build a league-leading 11.4 rebounding margin. On the flip side, Tennessee is No. 11 in the SEC in turnover margin (-1.8). Three of the Lady Vols’ top scorers — Rennia Davis, Evina Westbrook, and Anastasia Hayes — are freshmen.
“We definitely understand and are aware of what we’re going to go against,” MSU senior guard Blair Schaefer said. “But I think it just goes back to us having to be better, stronger, more mentally sharp at the small things — boxing out, rebounding, executing, setting better screens, making sure your angles are exact, going hard — everything you’re supposed to do that maybe we don’t always do. It’s got to be on point versus them because they are bigger and they do have a big lineup, but, at the same time, we can still do our job and get a win if we do it correctly.”
Coach Schaefer made it a point to challenge senior Victoria Vivians to rebound better if the Bulldogs were going to use a four-guard lineup. Vivians has responded and is second on the team with 6.0 rebounds per game. She also is second on the team in scoring (19.3 ppg.) to McCowan (20.9) thanks to a career-best 53.5-percent shooting percentage from the field.
But Vivians, who is 6-1, has a few inches on Schaefer and redshirt senior guard Roshunda Johnson, who are 5-7. Johnson knows none of the Bulldogs will be able to use their lack of size as excuses not to rebound or to defend against Tennessee, or any other team.
“It’s a challenge, but it has been a focal point at practice and it is just something we have to do and get used to it and know we have to do it to help our team,” Johnson said. “Getting in there and getting a couple of rebounds I think will help our team.”
Coach Schaefer said the Bulldogs also have found a way to “rock along” and have “never missed a beat” after forward Ameshya Williams left the team and school after playing in only one game thanks in part to the ability of Blair Schaefer and Johnson to play bigger roles.
Still, coach Schaefer understands the challenge his team will face today. Last season, MSU made history when it beat Tennessee 74-64 on Jan. 8, 2017, for its first victory in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 16 meetings. Tennessee won the rematch 82-64 on Feb. 26, 2017, in Starkville.
As much as MSU faces size disadvantages every night, the Bulldogs’ willingness to share the basketball and to execute in the half-court set has made them equally tough to handle. Coach Schaefer highlighted the fact Johnson is shooting 40 percent from 3-point range and Blair Schaefer is shooting 39 percent from behind the arc. Vivians is shooting 41 percent from 3-point range, too, which makes it hard for teams to double McCowan in the paint.
“When Teaira is doubled, we can play through her and she finds these two out on the perimeter,” Schaefer said, referring to Blair Schaefer and Johnson. “It is hard to pick who you’re not going to guard. Arkansas didn’t guard Mo(rgan William) and she went 8-for-11 in the first half, so picking your poison is really hard. I would hate to have to try to figure out who to guard and not guard on this team because you have some kids that can really do some things and they’re not just one-dimensional.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.