Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer calls to his players during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Miss., Friday, Dec. 14, 2018.

Vic Schaefer answered his phone at 6:45 a.m.( Oregon time), Monday. I wouldn’t have called that early, but didn’t know the Mississippi State women’s basketball coach already was on the left coast.

“Oh, no problem, I’ve already been up for two hours,” Schaefer said when offered an apology.

It had been a blur of a weekend for Schaefer. First, on Friday night, his Bulldogs reeled off their 10th straight victory, trouncing Southern Miss 86-42 at Reed Green Coliseum, which State fans turned into a south Mississippi version of The Hump. Green Coliseum? It was more like maroon. The crowd was listed at 4,448. Four thousand must have been State fans.

On Saturday, Schaefer was in Michigan recruiting – naturally one of the nation’s top four or five players. On Sunday, early, it was back to Starkville for a morning practice before boarding a plane for Eugene, Oregon, where the Bulldogs will play Tuesday night.

From Hattiesburg, to Starkville, to Michigan, back to Starkville, to the Pacific Northwest in 48 hours. You don’t bring Mississippi State’s women’s basketball program from where it was, to where it is, by taking many minutes – much less, days – off. Schaefer doesn’t.

Many coaches would call what Schaefer faces this season “a rebuilding year.” He did lose four starters off last season’s team that came within a missed foul call and a Notre Dame miracle shot of winning the national championship.

But how many coaches rebuild with a 10-0 start with an average margin of victory of 42 points per game? Schaefer has. State averages 93 points per game. Opponents average 51.

Schaefer lost his leading scorer – All-American Victoria Vivians. He lost his starting point guard Morgan William. He lost his leading 3-point shooter (and coach-on-the-floor daughter) Blair Schaefer. And he lost Roshunda Johnson, who averaged 11 points per game.

Mississippi State center Teaira McCowan, top center, fights for a rebound as Southern Mississippi players converge during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Hattiesburg, Miss., Friday, Dec. 14, 2018.

Schaefer didn’t rebuild so much as he reloaded. It helps that the one starter returning – towering Teaira McCowan – is the best player in the country. Yeah, I wrote it. She is the most dominant force in women’s college basketball. Nobody else has one of her. She is averaging better than 19 points and 12 rebounds a game – and, remember, she’s not playing many fourth quarters. In fact, she is averaging just 25 minutes of playing time and making a stupendous 71 percent of her field goal tries.

The game at Hattiesburg was typical. McCowan played 25 minutes, scored 13 points and pulled down 16 rebounds. She played about half the third quarter, none of the fourth.

And now, Schaefer has more depth behind her. Six-foot-five freshman Jessica Carter is a work in progress – but, with her, there is so much to work with. Anybody in the country would be glad to have her. The Bulldogs also have added Texas A&M transfer Anriel Howard, easily the team’s best athlete, who had 16 points and seven rebounds against USM.

The biggest question mark with these Bulldogs coming into the season: Who was going to replace all the 3-point shooting Vivians, William, Johnson and Blair Schaefer contributed last season? They made 242 of State’s 278 successful 3-point shots. They hit about 40 percent of their 3-point shots, too, which made it difficult for opponents to collapse on McCowan in the paint.

The answer to that 3-point question so far mostly has been Chloe Bibby, a reserve last season, who has hit 23 of 43 treys for an excellent 53.5 percent. Considering she made just 32 percent last year, that’s remarkable.

Despite the team’s 10-0 start Vic Schaefer says the Bulldogs have all kinds of room for improvement, mostly on the defensive side. “Remember,” he said, “we have four new starters who are learning to play together. Seems like we plug one leak, and then there’s another one we need to plug.”

Nevertheless, teams are shooting just 31.3 percent against the Bulldogs, and, due to McCowan and Howard, they usually only get one shot per possession. Guards Jazzmun Holmes and Jordan Danberry are super-fast and terrific on-ball defenders. Those two could run track and win medals.

How good is State? Redshirt freshman Myah Taylor, a guard and a five-star recruit, was a three-time Mississippi Gatorade Player of the year. She comes off the bench and averages 15 minutes of playing time per game.

Schaefer says the Bulldogs will learn how good they are this week. They play No. 7 Oregon Tuesday night at Eugene (9 p.m. CST, ESPN2). They take a day off and then play traditional Pac 12 power Washington.

“I know this,” Vic Schaefer said, “we’re a long ways from where I want to be. We’ve got to keep working hard, keep improving. We can get a whole lot better.”

Which is kind of scary.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.