It’s almost time…

Time for your reigning SEC Champions to take the court again…

Time for the 2-time repeating national finalists to hit the hardwood again…

Time for the national Defensive Player of the Year to control the paint again…

Time for the SEC Coach of the Year to pace the sidelines again…

It’s almost time for the Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs to don the Maroon and White and play their hearts out for MSU fans like they have been doing season after season.

Mississippi State loses four 2017-18 starters from the winningest senior class in school history as it is set to begin the 2018-19 campaign. They do, however, return Teaira McCowan as the national Player of the Year favorite and of course Vic Schaefer, who led MSU to an undefeated regular season last year as the Bulldog skipper. With a unique inside perspective on the Lady Dawgs, I’m here to offer everything you need to know for the upcoming season.

With the aforementioned loss of starters Morgan William, Victoria Vivians, Blair Schaefer, and Roshunda Johnson, the casual observer would expect the Bulldogs to take a step back this season. But there’s plenty in the pantry for coach Schaefer to cook up something special once again in Starkville. He returns a player with 29 double-doubles that was third in the country in rebounding and first in the SEC. He also adds the second-leading rebounder in the conference with graduate transfer Anriel Howard, formerly of Texas A&M. In what probably put a smile on the faces of every Bulldog fan the world around, Ole Miss’s best player and starting center, Promise Taylor, also made the voyage down the road to Starkvegas to join Vic Schaefer’s club. She has to sit out a season, but her strength and tenacity on the boards and in the paint will give the eligible bigs a great practice competitor every day during workouts and scrimmages. Sophomore guard Andra Espinoza-Hunter also arrives from Geno Auriemma’s storied UConn Huskies, and the rumors are swirling around her eligibility. She technically will fulfill the NCAA residency-duration requirements later in the year, and could potentially get on the court in December or January.  MSU is a Sweet Sixteen-Elite Eight-Final Fourish-maybe team without Espinoza-Hunter; but with her on the court, all bets are off as far as MSU’s chances to earn another spot in the national title game. Coach Schaefer has restocked the cupboard yet again by bringing Daphne White, Jessika Carter, and Xaria Wiggins—the 6th ranked high school post player, 7th ranked post, and 9th ranked guard—into the fold. The highly touted true freshmen, as well as redshirt freshman point guard and 3 time Mississippi High School Gatorade Player of the Year Myah Taylor,  ensure not only that MSU has depth, but that the success that Vic Schaefer has found is sustainable. We may have reached a peak in 2018, but we haven’t fallen into the valley by any means.

The starters for MSU this season have been both projected by experts and confirmed by people within the program to me to be as follows: Jazzmun Holmes, Jordan Danberry, Chloe Bibby, Anriel Howard, and Teaira McCowan. Now, most expect Jazzmun to run the point with Jordan at the two positon, but don’t be surprised if those roles are reversed in some situations. The coaches have liked what Danberry brings as a floor general as much as her skills as a wing player. MSU fans will remember the performance Danberry had in the Final Four last year, and the Arkansas transfer is poised for a great senior season. Also, don’t be surprised if Myah Taylor serves a lot of minutes in that backup/change-of-pace point guard role that Holmes held last season behind Morgan William. Coach Schaefer has a special relationship with his point guards, and Myah is as talented as any young player in the country. She solidifies that position for years to come, serving a redshirt season last year to preserve her eligibility. At the three position, Chloe Bibby takes over the Johnson/Schaefer role as the small forward for the Maroon and White. Fans will remember that Bibby played as a power forward or backup center last season, and must note that she will have to take a more guard-oriented approach this season with the addition of Anriel Howard and the muscle of Big T in the paint for the Dawgs. Chloe has gotten quicker and smaller but stronger and more in control of her athleticism since her arrival at MSU her freshman year, and her highly-touted shooting abilities should be in full effect this season. Still, her move to the three signals a huge change for Schaefer’s scheme. What was a guard-driven, shooting barrage type of offense last season behind those four senior guards with a dominant center to work around will have to morph into a total big girls’ game, where rebounding and low-post dominance is the focal point. The ability to adjust to a changing roster will determine the success for the Bulldogs this season. Coach Schaefer has always been a defensive basketball coach, but last season his dominant defense was overshadowed by an efficiently executed offense that outscored opponents more than the defense shut them down. Will MSU be able to continue that type of scoring with this new look? Don’t expect anybody but McCowan to put up the scoring numbers that Vivians or sometimes Johnson did last season. This offense will be more balanced outside of Big T, where anybody or everybody could chip in 10-15 points per game. If you had to bet on another player being the major bucket-getter for the Dawgs, take Danberry or Bibby as your most likely bets. Outside of the scheme-change concerns, shooting ability is the biggest question mark I have for the upcoming season. Danberry is a capable and improving shooter, Holmes is practicing her shots relentless every day, and Bibby can be lights-out. However, there will probably be a drop off in threes regardless of any improvements made, which is to be expected when you lose long-ball specialists like Blair and Roshunda. Will the big girls on the offensive glass be enough to neutralize a drop off in long-range shooting proficiency? With the incumbent Bulldog McCowan returning as the conference leader in boards and the new Dawg Howard joining the party as the second leading rebounder, I think one offensive game plan could be to just throw up anything towards the rim and let those two clean up the mess.

Defensively, expect McCowan to terrorize the paint once again this season with some ferocious blocks, but look to see if individual defensive efforts shine once again this season. Bibby excited fans with her play against SEC Player of the Year A’ja Wilson when MSU knocked off South Carolina last year, and the one-on-one defense should be spectacular thanks to the sheer size and athleticism the Lady Bulldogs bring to the table. Coach Schaefer loves to see his players draw charges (there’s even a sticker chart in the locker room with a star to put by a player’s name for every charge drawn), but I’m not sure if this season’s starters have the knack for taking a hit that Blair Schaefer and Morgan William possessed. I’m not sure if there will be any noticeable changes in the defensive scheme, but I wouldn’t be surprised if lockdown efforts of individual players against other individuals stole the show as opposed to the collaborative efforts and scheming of a well-executed defense. I could be wrong here, though. But if I know coach Schaefer, I know that he will accept nothing less than maximum effort from his girls on the defensive side of the floor. Mississippi State should have no trouble guarding opponents this season.

Maybe this season, Mississippi State finally gets over the hump—pun intended—and finally wins the Big Game. Maybe they bow out of the NCAA tournament early and leave fans with another plethora of what if?’s. But one thing the Bulldogs have for sure is potential. They control their own destiny in the SEC and in the country. They have big-time players, big-time coaches, and a big-time fan base supporting them. Don’t be surprised if they don’t make it to Tampa Bay, but don’t act shocked if we finally get what has eluded us for two years—a national championship banner.

 

***NOTE
Mississippi State has not only been the beneficiary of several transfers, but one player has elected to leave the program as well. Twice-redshirted guard Iggy Allen will take her talents elsewhere. Allen sat out last season with an ACL injury. Allen is extremely athletic, perhaps the strongest and fastest on the team for her size, but is not the polished player her teammates are. Still, her talent is through the roof and we wish her the best wherever she decides to play.

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