STARKVILLE – After fourth-ranked Mississippi State defeated Texas A & M 71-61 here Sunday afternoon, coaches and players lined up for the customary handshakes and high-fives.
It took State head coach Vic Schaefer far longer to make it through the line than normal. Handshakes and high-fives were replaced with what appeared heartfelt hugs instead. The conversations obviously went far deeper than, “Good game.”
“They are still family,” Schaefer would say later.
“He’s still my guy,” Schaefer said of A & M coach Gary Blair. “I was with him for 15 years. I appreciate him more now that I am away from him than I did when I was with him. I have a better understanding now of what it takes to fill his shoes and accomplish what he has.”
Before coming to State in 2012, Schaefer spent nine years as Blair’s associate head coach at A & M. In 2010-11, the Aggies won 33 games, lost five and won the national championship, which surely led to Schaefer landing the State job.
There’s a lot of Gary Blair in the way Schaefer coaches. There’s a lot of Texas A & M in the way Mississippi State plays. There are far more similarities than just the maroon and white uniforms. They both run a lot of precision offensive sets. They both guard fiercely. They both block out on rebounds. They both share the basketball.
There is one huge difference now. State is better. And State is better in large part because State is so much deeper. The Bulldogs go at least two-deep – and that’s a quality two-deep – at every position.
Blair can’t do that. Few teams can.
Afterward I asked Schaefer: Did the Texas A & M team that won the national championship have as much depth as your team does?
“No,” he answered. “Probably not.”
Next question: Have you ever been around a team that has as much depth as your team does?
He shook his head.
I asked Richard Williams, the Hall of Fame coach who took the State men’s team to the Final Four in 1996 if he has ever seen a Mississippi college basketball team, men or women, with as much depth as Schaefer’s team.
“No,” he answered. “Not even close.”
Blair, as folksy and humorous a coach as you’ll find this side of Van Chancellor, said No. 2 ranked Baylor might be the only team in women’s hoops with more depth than State, which sometimes replaces 6-foot, 5-inch Chinwe Okorie with 6-7 Teaira McCowan in the post.
“Connecticut?” Blair said. “They don’t have this kind of depth, but they don’t need it. They play in a weak conference and, besides, you can’t keep more than 10 All-Americans happy.”
Blair talked a lot about how good State is and the fact that the Lady Bulldogs are playing like a Final Four team.
He talked more about what Schaefer has accomplished in terms of fans support and coliseum atmosphere at State. A crowd of 7,780 attended Sunday’s game. It was loud at all the right times.
Said Blair, “They opened up the gates 90 minutes before the game and people were scrambling to get the good general admission seats. I know. I talked to a bunch of them. This is good for SEC basketball. This is good for women’s basketball. … This is doggone exciting.”
A & M quieted the crowd somewhat in the first quarter, out-playing the Bulldogs and taking a 20-15 lead. But The Hump got really noisy in the second quarter when State outscored the Aggies 26-9 to take command.
McGowan – who Blair says “looks likes she’s 6-11 the way she wears her hair” – scored 10 points, grabbed six rebounds and didn’t miss a shot in the second period after barely playing in the first. McGowan is shooting 57 percent on the season. Okorie, who plays ahead of her, is shooting 58 percent. Together, they are averaging 17 points and 12 rebounds a game.
Said Schaefer, “It’s really nice to have two aircraft carriers.”
It must be nice. Indeed, it must be nice to have two of everything. Victoria Vivians led the Bulldogs with 18 points, but her substitute, Roshunda Johnson, scored nine in just 13 minutes. Morgan Williams, the tiny point guard, who sees eye-to-waist with McGowan, ran the show with nine assists, compared to one turnover, and also scored 10.
It was a big day for State, coming off a heart-breaking first loss to South Carolina Tuesday night. It was a big day for Vic Schaefer. And Gary Blair, truth be known, probably took some pride in seeing first-hand what Schaefer has created at State.
Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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