Vic Schaefer's Mississippi State Bulldogs lost four starters from last season's SEC championship team.
They lost their leading scorer, first-team All-American Victoria Vivians. They lost 90 percent of their 3-point shooting. Seven weeks ago, they lost their best 3-point shooter this season, Chloe Bibby.
Such losses would decimate most programs.
Schaefer's Bulldogs ended the regular season Sunday by defeating proud South Carolina 68-64 on the road to claim a second straight outright regular-season SEC Championship. They did it the hard way, coming from eight points behind to win.
There aren't many firsts left for Schaefer, but this was one: a victory at Columbia, S.C., where few visitors ever win.
Thus, the Bulldogs finish the regular season 27-2 overall and 15-1 in the SEC, heading into the league tournament this week in Greenville, S.C. The Bulldogs have a double bye and don't play until Friday against the winner of Tennessee-LSU game on Thursday.
Surely, Schaefer is one of the leading candidates for National Coach of the Year this season. You lose four of your starters from last year? You lose one of your starters this year? Yet, you still win the conference championship in the nation's best conference?
That's Coach of the Year stuff. Schaefer always seems to make the right call when State needs it most. Sunday, his best move was early in the third quarter with South Carolina leading and the Gamecocks' crowd really into it. Schaefer ranted at the officials harshly after one call he particularly didn't like. If he seemed to be begging for a technical foul, well, he was.
As he told reporters afterward, “I just wanted them to know, 'You know what? I've had enough. I'm ready to fight. Who's with me? And I think they got it...”
State's players turned their intensity up a couple of notches and went on an 11-2 run. Again, Coach of the Year stuff...
And State's Teaira McCowan has to be one of the leading candidates for national player of the year. Sunday, she scored 18 points (on 7 of 8 shooting) and pulled down seven rebounds. For the season, she is averaging 17.3 points and 13.4 rebounds. Perhaps most impressively, she had made nearly two-thirds of the shots she has taken.
McCowan has made a remarkable transformation during her four seasons at State. Remember, as a sophomore, McCowan averaged just 8.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game and wasn't even a starter for much of the season. She has changed her body, becoming much stronger and more fit. She has changed her mindset, becoming a much smarter player and much more, as Schaefer calls it, “locked in.”
I don't know if she'll win national player of the year but I do know that no player in America is more valuable to her team. She is surrounded by outstanding players, but they all revolve around the one they call “Big T.” Defensively, she changes the way other teams play. In coaches' lingo, she takes away the paint. She has blocked 71 shots this season, changed so many more.
In short, nobody else has one of her.
Win or lose at the SEC Tournament, the Bulldogs will be hosting first-round NCAA Tournament games the following weekend. At present, most bracket predictors rate the Bulldogs a No. 2 seed.
Coming into this season, I saw little chance Schaefer's team could advance back to the Final Four, much less the national championship game, as they have the past two years. You just don't lose four starters and a first-team All-American without some consequences. Do you?
They may prove me––and most everybody else––wrong. In fact, they already have.
Rick Cleveland is a Hattiesburg native and an award-winning sports columnist in Mississippi. Email Rick Cleveland at email@example.com.