STARKVILLE — The Mississippi State women’s basketball team’s countdown to the 2018-19 season started in August.
A handful of practices in Starkville set the stage for a 3-0 finish on a 10-day trip to Italy that gave coach Vic Schaefer’s team a chance to build chemistry a little earlier than many of its counterparts.
On Thursday, the countdown will begin again in Starkville, when a “different” MSU kicks off practice for a new season.
MSU could have started practice Tuesday, but Schaefer said he prefers to take two days off at the beginning of the campaign to keep his team in a constant routine as it prepares for a season-opening exhibition game against Central Missouri at 6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2, at Humphrey Coliseum. MSU will open the regular season at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 6, against Southeast Missouri State in Starkville.
MSU averaged 87.7 points per game in its tour. The Bulldogs had only two players — Teaira McCowan and Anriel Howard, a graduate transfer from Texas A&M — shoot 50 percent or better from the field. MSU also had 50 assists and 50 turnovers, but it forced 81 turnovers and allowed only 52.3 ppg.
“We didn’t shoot it well, and we have some work to do there,” Schaefer said. “I didn’t think we took care of the ball. Shot selection was concerning at times with some of them, and we weren’t very good on defense, either.”
Even though MSU didn’t have a lot of time to work on defense, the three games offered a glimpse as to how the Bulldogs might be more of a defensive team this season.
The loss of Roshunda Johnson, Blair Schaefer, Victoria Vivians, and Morgan William to graduation means the 2018-19 team won’t have as many 3-point shooters and that it might not score at as high a rate as the 2017-18 squad (81.1 ppg.) did en route to a program-best 37-win season, a Southeastern Conference regular-season title (16-0), and a second-consecutive trip to the national title game. Arike Ogunbowale’s 3-pointer at the buzzer lifted Notre Dame to a 61-58 victory on April 1 in Columbus, Ohio.
“This year’s team is going to have to better defensively,” Schaefer said. “I think we will be more like we have been in the past until last year. I certainly think we’ll be good, but I think we’ll be different than last year’s team. Last year’s team was different than any team I have ever coached.”
Ten of the 15 players on the roster averaged double-digit minutes on the trip to Italy. Guard Andra Espinoza-Hunter, a transfer from Connecticut, averaged 14.3 minutes per game, while center Promise Taylor, a transfer from Ole Miss, averaged 7.0 mpg. Schaefer said he isn’t sure if both players will be eligible to play this season. He said he isn’t sure when the NCAA will rule on the immediate eligibility of either player or both of them. Typically, transfers have to sit out a year when they transfer to another school.
Schaefer said MSU has to request a waiver from the NCAA for transfers. He said MSU has requested a waiver for Espinoza-Hunter but it hasn’t yet for Taylor, but it will.
“I would hope that they would be eligible,” Schaefer said. “I think each case has its own merits, so we’ll be anxious to see.”
Espinoza-Hunter would give the Bulldogs another perimeter shooting threat to go with sophomore forward Chloe Bibby. Taylor, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, would add size and experience to an already deep frontcourt that includes freshman newcomers Jessika Carter and Daphane White. Freshman Xaria Wiggins will add to the Bulldogs’ depth at guard.
But the discussion starts with McCowan, a first-team All-SEC performer who also was named Naismith Defensive Player of the Year and a Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) All-American last season. McCowan averaged 18.2 points and 13.9 rebounds. Senior guards Jazzmun Holmes and Jordan Danberry also are expected to play key roles, as is Jacaira “Iggy” Allen, a redshirt sophomore, who is ready to return after sitting out last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Schaefer hopes the pieces come together because MSU will face a grind of a non-conference schedule that includes games against Virginia, Texas, Marquette, Oregon, and Washington. The game against Marquette will be the only one of that group in Starkville.
“We’ll have to grow up in a hurry because we are going to play some young kids, and we are even going to play some kids who aren’t so young but whose meaningful minutes at this level have been really slim,” Schaefer said.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.