Vic Schaefer had been in the coaching business a long time when he took over at Mississippi State in 2012. He knew what it would require to build a consistently competitive program there, just as he had helped his good friend Gary Blair do at Arkansas and Texas A&M as an assistant coach.
But on top of all that knowledge and experience, having a little geographical luck didn't hurt, either. When Schaefer got the Bulldogs job, the player who would turn out to score more points than any girl in Mississippi state high school history -- 5,745 -- was a prep sophomore: Victoria Vivians, a 6-foot-1 guard from Carthage.
"The first call I made was to her high school coach," Schaefer said. "We worked our tails off in recruiting her because we knew the importance of keeping her here. Obviously, it's been big for us. It's a special time to have a kid like her on our basketball team."
What the Bulldogs are still trying to establish this season, though, is that they are a consistently solid offensive team around Vivians too. In her second collegiate season, she is averaging a team-best 17.6 points per game for No. 10 Mississippi State.
"It's been neat watching things change here. ... I give our kids the credit: They've earned the respect of our fans, who enjoy watching them play. We're getting after it." Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer
But in a 47-43 loss on Thursday at Georgia, Mississippi State was too dependent on Vivians, who had 20 points. Georgia's zone pretty much shut down the inside game of Mississippi State, which got no relief from its dismal 2-of-20 shooting from 3-point range.
It was the opposite of what had happened on Monday in Mississippi State's 79-51 victory over in-state rival Mississippi, when the Bulldogs showed they didn't have to depend on double-digit scoring from Vivians to win. She had eight points and nine rebounds as some of the Bulldogs' other strengths were on display. Sophomore point guard Morgan William and two of Mississippi State's big threats inside, 6-5 junior Chinwe Okorie and 6-7 freshman Teaira McCowan, all scored in double figures in that game, played in front of 7,128 fans at the Bulldogs' Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville.
It was the program's second-largest home crowd -- the Bulldogs drew 7,326 last March against Ole Miss -- but Mississippi State is hoping for even more on Sunday. That's when No. 2 South Carolina, the SEC leader, visits "The Hump" (ESPN2, 5 p.m. ET).
That's one of two huge back-to-back home games coming up for the Bulldogs. They host No. 18 Tennessee on Jan. 28 (SEC Network, 9 p.m. ET), which could be a historically significant game. Mississippi State is the only SEC team that has never beaten the Lady Vols, who are 36-0 in the series that began in 1986.
Mississippi State is 17-3 overall and 4-2 in the SEC, part of the second-place logjam. Thursday's loss was offensively very ugly -- the score was 17-14 at halftime -- and like Mississippi State's other two defeats this season, it came on the road with Vivians as the only Bulldog to score in double figures. Mississippi State fell at Texas 53-47 on Dec. 2 and at Missouri 66-54 on Jan. 14.
But the Bulldogs responded to the losses by winning their next game by 28 points, both times. So let's see how they do against the unbeaten Gamecocks.
William, who is second on the team in scoring at 9.2 PPG and leads in assists (106), said that the Bulldogs feed off their home environment. And having the chance to play a big rivalry game against Mississippi right after losing to Missouri was actually the best thing for the Bulldogs.
"It was a nice atmosphere, and I'm glad I'm able to be a part of this program and that rivalry," said William, who is from Birmingham, Alabama. "Our fans gave us a lot of great energy."
Mississippi State had a few strong seasons before Schaefer took over. The Bulldogs under coach Sharron Fanning-Otis went to the NCAA tournament six times, most recently in 2010, when they made the Sweet 16. Four-time All-American LaToya Thomas (2000-03) and Tan White (2002-06) remain the program's all-time leading scorers.
Fanning-Otis was the program's sixth coach, and the only one who had a winning career record; she was 281-232 in 17 seasons. But she had a winning mark in the SEC just three times.
What Schaefer hoped to do was make Mississippi State a real contender in the SEC, which would also mean being a national contender. He went 5-11 in the league his first two seasons, then turned that around last year, going 11-5. The 27-7 Bulldogs set records for most overall wins, and SEC victories, in program history, and they put a scare in Duke before falling in the NCAA tournament's second round 64-56 in Durham, North Carolina.
They lost four seniors from that team -- Martha Alwal, Kendra Grant, Jerica James and Savannah Carter -- and Schaefer is very grateful for how much they contributed to last year's breakthrough season. Those were players he and his staff inherited when they took over the Bulldogs, and they bought into what Schaefer asked of them.
He has just one senior this season, reserve forward Sherise Williams. So nearly all of the team that Schaefer has now is coming back next season.
Yes, as you might expect with Schaefer, the Bulldogs spend a lot of time in practice on defense. That has long been Schaefer's specialty, and part of his big contribution to Texas A&M's NCAA title in 2011.
But Mississippi State has shown offensive prowess too, Thursday's game notwithstanding. The Bulldogs have averaged 76.8 PPG, and it starts, of course, with the scoring dynamo Vivians. She could seemingly put the ball through the rim at will throughout high school. (She also played a varsity season as an eighth grader.)
As Vivians has adjusted to college defenses geared specifically to stop her, she has learned, Schaefer said, "You can turn down a good shot and go get a great shot."
But Vivians also knows that she has some strong post players to pass to, and the Bulldogs will need more from them offensively as the season continues. The development of the rookie McCowan, in particular, should be fun to watch.
You could say that, though, about Mississippi State as a whole. There's a junior class led by guard Dominique Dillingham who has, as much as anyone, helped put the "bulldog" in the Bulldogs with her toughness and sense of urgency on court.
There's the sophomore group led by Vivians and William, the latter of whom took seven on-ball charges in a 72-70 victory over SMU in a tournament in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Dec. 21. (And you can imagine what kind of Christmas present that was to Mr. Defense. Schaefer still sounds giddy recounting it: "That's on-ball charges, not helping! I mean, that's hard to do!")
And certainly while not making the upcoming South Carolina and Tennessee games the be-all and end-all of the regular season -- there still will be eight tough SEC games left -- Schaefer is excited to have two such chances to showcase his team to the hometown fans against marquee foes and try to bounce back from the loss at Georgia.
"I think anybody likes to play in front of a big crowd, and that's going to be a plus for all of our players," Schaefer said. "Part of building a program is not just the wins and losses, but it's about the fan base.
"It's been neat watching things change here. Our first year here, if you were on press row, you'd have to whisper, or everybody in the gym could hear you. Over the course of time, I give our kids the credit: They've earned the respect of our fans, who enjoy watching them play. We're getting after it."