Vic Schaefer did not inherit a powerhouse when Mississippi State hired him to coach women’s basketball in 2012. And he hardly had a brilliant track record as a head coach.
The Bulldogs were coming off back-to-back losing seasons, and Schaefer did not engineer a quick turnaround.
“That first year, when we went 13-17, that may be the best job in coaching I’ve done,” Schaefer said. “I didn’t think we would win three games and we won 13. We didn’t panic. We just went to work. We went recruiting.”
Within two years, Mississippi State was in the NCAA Tournament. Its breakthrough moment came last year when the Bulldogs stunned the basketball world with a 66-64 overtime victory over Connecticut in a national semifinal, which snapped the Huskies’ NCAA-record 111-game winning streak. MSU then lost to South Carolina 67-55 in the championship game, so they return hungry to the Final Four in Columbus.
“Our mission this year is ‘Unfinished Business,’ ” Schaefer said. “Our kids have embraced that. I’m sure Connecticut’s is similar.”
Schaefer, 57, had only one previous stint as a head coach before taking the Mississippi State job. His teams went 80-110 in seven seasons at Sam Houston State in the 1990s. Schaefer then spent six seasons as an assistant at Arkansas and nine at Texas A&M, helping the Aggies to the 2011 national championship.
He had a clear vision of his plan for Mississippi State. He didn’t want to settle for a team that sometimes cracked the top 25. Rather, he wanted to build a sustainable top-10 program.
“I believed we could do it because of the people, because of the administration,” Schaefer said. “Our facilities are incredible, and it’s a beautiful part of the country.”
The Starkville campus is a hidden gem, he said.
“I can't tell you how many times I’ve had recruits and parents here and their parents have told me, ‘Coach, we had no idea this was here,’ ” Schaefer said. “I think I’ve lost six kids in six years who have actually been on official visits here.”
On the court, Schaefer established that the foundation for success would come on defense. Schaefer has been dubbed “The Secretary of Defense” for his embrace of full-court pressure that exhausts opponents. Even when rules changes designed to discourage physical defense were instituted a few years ago, Schaefer refused to back away from his style.
“We've built a fan base here based on how hard our kids play, our toughness, our competitive spirit,” Schaefer said, “and I just don’t think that we would have the fan base if we were standing around in a 2-3 zone.
“That’s not to knock that. It may be great for someone else. But it’s not what we hung our hat on around here.”
This year, Mississippi State employs four senior guards, including first-team All-American Victoria Vivians and Morgan William, the sensation of last year’s tournament for hitting the game-winning shot against UConn. In the middle is 6-foot-7 junior center Teaira McCowan.
Though the foundation of the Bulldogs’ program is defense, its offense separates this year’s team from previous ones. MSU averages 82.0 points per game.
“It’s the best offensive team I’ve ever been associated with in 33 years,” Schaefer said.
Mississippi State won its first 32 games this season before losing to South Carolina in the Southeastern Conference tournament final. The Bulldogs swept through the Kansas City Regional, winning each game by at least 14 points.
“They have had the target on their back from day 1 (after) last year and what they were able to accomplish,” Schaefer said. “As the year went on this year, being undefeated for 32 games was a big challenge and they handled that like a pro all year long.”