Vic Schaefer has pushed the right buttons to get Mississippi State back to the Final Four
COLUMBUS, Ohio — If Vic Schaefer is not the best coach in the country this year, he’s certainly the best to wear a jean jacket that says “Papa Schaef” on the back and PTLGD (Praise the Lord and Go Dawgs) on one arm.
He wore this jacket, along with a fedora and shades, for a team event Wednesday night here at the Final Four, and while surely meant for a laugh it was somehow symbolic of this team and this coach and this season.
A year ago Mississippi State came to the Final Four full of nervous energy. The players had never experienced this before, and Schaefer never as a head coach. Beyond all the UConn talk, they were trying to take it all in and embrace the moment. It worked out.
Now they’re back, and it’s a different vibe. This team has taken care of business all season, and there’s no reason to think it won’t be ready for Friday’s national semifinal against Louisville, but it’s also loose. Schaefer was a few minutes tardy for Thursday’s press conference, and Morgan William gave him a golf clap upon his entrance.
“That was your point guard,” Victoria Vivians said, preemptively deflecting any blame.
Those two girls and Blair Schaefer have been with Schaefer for four years and 125 wins now (and Blair a lot longer than that). The other two-thirds of the starting lineup, Teaira McCowan and Roshunda Johnson, are in their third years. That’s a lot of experience, but that’s also a lot of time to spend with the same head coach.
We talk about that a lot in the pro game — the idea that you can still be a good coach but lose the room’s ear. But it has not happened here. Mississippi State didn’t just make it to another Final Four, it did so with excellence.
It’s why, in my mind, Schaefer is the national coach of the year. I’m not alone in this — his fellow coaches already gave him their award, and he’s a finalist for the Naismith.
No doubt, Mississippi State is talented. No doubt, these are special ladies who have been willing to give of themselves to something bigger. But a year after playing in the national championship game, a hangover could have happened. It could have sleep-walked through games where it knew 75 percent of its best was going to be more than enough, or say they’ll turn it on when it really matters.
But this team didn’t do that. It’s a credit to them, and to Schaefer and his assistant coaching staff.
“I just think our kids know that, you know what, if we're saying something, if we're making a point to put it in a scouting report, it's important,” Schaefer said. “And I think we don't give in. If we think our message is falling on deaf ears, we don't just throw our hands up and go, ‘Oh, well.’ I think you keep coaching, you keep teaching, you stay after it.”
He masterfully used leftover goals to motivate and get past the post-national championship loss period. Mississippi State accomplished a lot last season, but it had not won the SEC title or gone undefeated in the regular season. Now it has.
“We put a picture of their trophy, big picture, laminated it, put it on their lockers,” Schaefer said. “I wanted them to see that every day.”
It's worked, just like it has always for Schaefer. This group was 27-7 as freshmen, then 28-8, then 34-5 and now 36-1.
"I think," Schaefer said, "the proof's in the pudding."
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