For the last two seasons, the Mississippi State women’s basketball team was decimated by program shifts.
Vic Schaefer’s departure for Texas led to a roster shakeup as well as a staff shakeup, and the rise of the transfer portal made it easier for many players to move on. It happened again when Nikki McCray-Penson stepped down as head coach just before the start of the 2021-22 season. She had already had to deal with a period of convincing players and recruits from the previous coaching regime to stay on, and her resignation led those who stayed to consider their futures again.
Interim head coach Doug Novak had just seven players to work with for much of the 2021/22 season and lost star scorer Rickea Jackson in the middle of the campaign. Jackson was the last of three players to transfer out after the start of the season. The ease with which players could leave through the transfer portal left the Bulldogs with a lot of holes in a short amount of time.
The 2021-22 campaign in particular suffered because of it. Despite the high level of play from the shorthanded roster, MSU’s best performances were sometimes just barely enough to overcome opponents in wins, and the fatigue really began to set in down the stretch.
The Bulldogs lost seven of their last eight games before losing in the first round of the SEC tournament. Only seven players were available for that stretch.
The arguments against the increased transfer portal movement made sense when looking at Mississippi State’s situation. The roster was decimated, there was no answer midseason, and despite the best efforts of the team they potentially missed a shot at an extended postseason.
But the transfer portal now has allowed Mississippi State to replenish its roster and fill up its scholarship spots with the deepest roster it has had since Schaefer’s departure.
New head coach Sam Purcell has so far delivered on the promise to work hard in retaining players and identifying others to bring in for the 2022 recruiting class, whether from high school or through the transfer portal. In addition to the eight players the Bulldogs were set to have next year, Purcell has been able to add five transfers and two high school prospects.
In the span of just over a month, the program went from the uncertainty of an interim coach and potentially the departure of the rest of the team to a full staff and roster loaded and ready for next fall.
One of the big reasons why Purcell was able to bring in these players is that he represents stability for a program that has lacked just that the last couple of years. He’s an excellent recruiter, yes, but more importantly, he has a record in program-building and fostering a healthy environment in which players can compete and grow. Mississippi State is transitioning out of uncertainty, and the change in recruiting reflects that.
Ahlaha Smith, who followed Purcell from Louisville, described her familiarity with MSU’s new head coach and working in a highly competitive program, knowing that’s what Purcell wants from Day 1 in Starkville.
“He’s seen me putting in the work, and he knows me as a player and as a person,” Smith said. “I think that him knowing that, he’d kinda seen the vision for himself, like, “I can see you coming here, being successful, helping these young ladies. Letting them know what it takes, clearly because you just went on a Final Four run, but you can impact this community, this program and ultimately the team.”
Enthusiastic recruitment of Florida State transfer Kourtney Weber and St. Bonaventure import Asianae Johnson also helped add experience to the roster, and even though their years of eligibility are limited, it shows the attractiveness of the program is once again at a level to get players looking for a last shot at NCAA glory.
Both players spoke highly of the competitive nature of the team since their arrival, and Johnson especially was won over by Purcell’s insistence that this won’t be a rebuilding project.
“I don’t wanna be part of another startup,” she said. “That’s the first thing I’d said, but he was just like, ‘It’s not a startup. These kids, they just need some heart in ’em. They just need some faith, and we’re gonna push them and get to the top.’”
It’s getting back to a level where players trust their futures with Mississippi State, and in the modern age of player movement, that’s what it takes to bring a title-contending team back to Starkville.
A lot has been made of the recent freedoms granted college athletes in terms of movement through transfers and profit through name, imagine and likeness legislation. The bulk of criticism seems to be leveled against the newfound agency of college athletes and the ease with which they can suddenly decide to move to another program. It’s been a frustrating reality for coaches, but the ability for students to decide what is best for them is worth the price.
Perhaps some changes should be made to limit when players can transfer for their respective sports, but change should not come at the expense of the newfound agency that student-athletes have achieved. The sport continues to evolve in a way that maximizes profit for the schools and conferences, and players deserve their power and agency in that evolution as well.
Programs are supposed to be built to attract and retain talent by offering the right environment to foster said talent. Some players want to reach the next level, but some players just want to play. Players are limited in years of eligibility, and have to think about the short term as much as coaches have to think about the long term. They need a program that they know will be stable and right for them over their limited amount of time.
Mississippi State has stability again, and its recruitment and retention efforts now reflect that.
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