State faces ‘toughest draw’ in NCAA tournament

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Rick Cleveland

Van Chancellor says State’s defense is as good as any.

When I called Van Chancellor’s cell phone Thursday morning, he didn’t answer, so I left a message. This was the first day of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament and I figured he was traveling to one of the sites to do TV work.

Five minutes later, he called back.

“No man, I’m on the golf course with my grandson,” Chancellor said. “Not doing any ESPN work this year. I am where I need to be. It’s crowded out here and we’re playing really slow, what you got?”

Chancellor, the 73-year-old Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame coach, has always been my go-to guy for women’s basketball information. He won 434 games at Ole Miss and took the Lady Rebels to the NCAA Tournament 14 times. He then took the Houston Comets to the WNBA’s first four championships and was WNBA Coach of the Year three times. He guided Team USA to Olympic gold medals in Greece and China. With Chancellor as coach, Team USA was 38-0. Perfect.

Melanie Thortis

Rick Cleveland

He knows a thing or two about the sport and he imparts his knowledge in an unmistakable East Mississippi twang learned growing up in Nanih Waiya.

Chancellor may have become famous for coaching at Ole Miss, but he graduated from Mississippi State and one of his best friends in the coaching business is Vic Schaefer, who has coached Mississippi State to a 29-4 record and a No. 2 seed in the Oklahoma City Regional. State plays Troy in a first round game Friday in Starkville. Should they win, they will play the DePaul-Northern Iowa winner on Sunday.

“I thought Mississippi State drew one of the toughest draws they could possibly get,” Chancellor said. “ Troy’s not bad, but DePaul is one of those teams that is always there. They’re always good. They will be a tough out. Washington, the 3-seed, is very good with one of the best players (Kelsey Plum) in the nation. And Baylor, the top seed, is one of the most talented teams you’ll ever see. I’ve seen them up close and personal. They are the real deal. I don’t see how it could have been a much tougher draw.”

Well, State could have been bracketed with UConn, which happened last year. Speaking of UConn, Van, is this the year somebody could get them?

“Well, last year, I would have said it was impossible,” Chancellor answered. “They were so good and such a veteran team. It’s not impossible this year. I wouldn’t say it’s likely, because they are still very, very good. But it’s not impossible.

“To beat Connecticut, you are going to have to be able to score and score a lot, because they are going to score. You can’t stop them. Too many shooters. They are going to score on anybody.”

And what about this format where UConn will pay four games essentially at home before presumably heading to another Final Four?

“I don’t like it,” Chancellor said. “If you are fortunate enough to host your first two games, you should have to go on the road to win before you go to the Final Four. Now, I understand it. I understand the reasoning. You gotta sell tickets, too, to make the whole thing work. We haven’t reached the point yet in women’s basketball that you can sell a whole lot of tickets at neutral sites.”

So, what about State?

“I have said all along that Vic’s team had a chance to be a Final Four team and I still believe that,” Chancellor said “They are as good a defensive team as there is in the country. Buddy, they will guard you. Nobody defends better than they do.

“Their problem at the end of the season was scoring the basketball. They just had trouble scoring points. They really need for Victoria (Vivians) to get hot in this tournament. She’s capable. We’ve seen it before.”

Kelly Price

Victoria Vivians drives to the bucket against LSU.

Chancellor is a Vivians fan. “She is such a really good human being,” Chancellor said. “She wants to do well. She wants to please everybody, teammates, coaches, fans. … I thought she was pressing there at the end, trying a little too hard. Then you miss, and you try a little harder. Sometimes, it’s hard to snap out of it. It’s not the defensive pressure they put on you, it’s the pressure you put on yourself.”

Any other observations?

“The best news for State is they are playing different teams,” Chancellor said. “When you are playing your conference schedule and in the conference tournament, that second time around everybody knows what everybody else is doing, what their tendencies are. It gets harder.

“I’ve always believed that when you’re playing somebody different, the advantage always goes to the favorite.”

Presumably, State would be the favorite until the Oklahoma City Regional final. We shall see.

Said Chancellor, “I just can’t wait to get Vic back on the golf course. He’s so good that he can take me as a partner and we can beat anybody. Buddy, that tells you right there, he’s pretty darned good. If you play him, better get him to spot you.”

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Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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  • Rusty Alston

    I always loved Van (MSU alum) even though he always coached teams (college) we played against. Always loved his interviews (down home Mississippi) and I bet ya’ll did too. Thanks for the story Rick, as always an excellent read.