MSU women's basketball

Andra Espinoza-Hunter (2) is one of the players with experience returning for coach Vic Schaefer next season.

As Mississippi State’s team walked off the floor of Portland’s Moda Center on Sunday afternoon for the last time together, a new team was beginning to be formed.

In the midst of the postgame heartache and tears, head coach Vic Schaefer was already beginning to think about where he would go from there with his Bulldogs. It’s something that he did last season when they lost most of its offensive production and five roster players and it’s the exact same situation that Schaefer and his staff are in this year.

Returning from last year’s national championship runners up was 34.5 points and 22.2 rebounds per game. Of course, Teaira McCowan represented 18.2 points and 13.9 rebounds of that, but she was a critical piece returning in the lineup. Despite losing four great seniors in McCowan, Anriel Howard, Jordan Danberry and Jazzmun Holmes as well as bench player Zion Campbell, State will actually bring back more offensive production from this roster than last at 37.6 points though rebounds are way down, expectedly, at 12.7.

So what will MSU look like in 2019-2020? The short answer: different.

That’s not to say there should be an expected dip in the success the team is having, it just means they’re going to be different. It’s the same as how Schaefer would describe this year’s team and even last year’s. One thing that is known is that the talent is there.

“I think we’ve got a tremendous recruiting class coming in and a locker room of kids that are ready to go to work and get better,” Schaefer said. “We’ll be young next year, but we’ll be very talented. I’m excited about our future. I’m excited about our youth.”

This will be, on paper, Schaefer’s most talented roster yet. The Bulldogs have four former five-star players either on the roster currently or on the way in. They have five four-star prospects and though players like Chloe Bibby and Bre’Amber Scott didn’t earn the distinction of being ranked as high as others, they’re proven Southeastern Conference commodities.  

Of course, the big replacements will come in the post. It’s impossible to replace the impact that Howard and McCowan made in Starkville this year. The two were arguably the most dynamic post combo along with Baylor’s Lauren Cox and Kalani Brown and both were first-team All-Southeastern Conference players.

There are several different ways that Schaefer can approach those two positions. If he chooses to go big, look for sophomore Jessika Carter to get the minutes at power forward, which she did many times as a true freshman this year. That would likely pit Ole Miss transfer Promise Taylor at center giving the Bulldog two 6-5 players in the paint.

What’s likely to happen is that Carter and Taylor split time at center and MSU is getting a fresh body at that spot all game long. If that happens, Bibby is the prime candidate to play the power forward spot, one that’s been occupied by a guard-type body the last two years with Victoria Vivians and Howard to much success.

With this lineup similar to four-guard, the floor spreads out more for the Bulldogs and they become quite dynamic offensively. Myah Taylor is likely running the point, Andra Espinoza-Hunter at shooting guard and superstar freshman Rickea Jackson is the likely candidate at the three.

MSU’s bench should be deeper as well as Scott, Xaria Wiggins and Nyah Tate will be prime candidates for a big jump from the year before.

The two most experienced players returning into next year’s lineup are Espinoza-Hunter and Scott. With Bibby’s torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee, Espinoza-Hunter and Scott had the opportunity to get valuable experience in big games and they had huge moments in return.  

“Those are two sophomores that have been through the battles, been through the wars, and they know what it feels like,” Schaefer said. “Both of those kids embrace the moment. It’s not too big for them. That gives me hope,” Schaefer said. “Jessika, Xaria, Myah – I think all of those kids are ready to move on and it’s time for their team to get ready and go back to work.”

There also is this group of freshmen on the way in. It’s the highest rated recruiting class in MSU basketball history, men or women, and it’s headlined by the nation’s No. 8 player in Jackson. The McDonald’s All-American led her Detroit Edison team to three-straight state championships. She’s a dynamic scorer in a long 6-2 frame, who has the ability to be a freshman All-American caliber player in year one.

Along with Jackson are more dynamic players. Bishop McNamara (M.D.) point guard Aliyah Matharu flew way under the radar but is a player that Schaefer believes was a steal for his class. Matharu provides a scoring threat from all levels of the floor as a long range and midrange shooter, penetration and facilitating. She could play either guard position next season and should earn playing time early.

The same can be said about JaMya Young and Jayla Hemingway. Young tore her ACL twice in high school but has bounced back to win a state title for Loranger in Louisiana. The coaches talk about her intangibles and will to win. Hemingway is the same way. As the Gatorade Player of the Year in Tennessee, the Houston standout had a huge senior season.

Hemingway is a strong defender who can get to the rim offensively. There’s also Esmery Martinez, a 6-0 forward from Hamilton Heights Christian in Tennessee. Her impact right away is unknown because she is coming off of an ACL tear, but she is a long defender who can help MSU’s depth.

One last thing that can’t be accounted for yet is the transfer market. The Bulldogs have struck gold in that regard in the last few years and there are two scholarships available. Getting a grad transfer wouldn’t hinder MSU’s future rosters, but they would have to be careful about who they take as a transfer otherwise or it limits scholarships moving forward.

Either way, it’s hard to discount Schaefer figuring it out and he’ll be faced with another tremendous task of putting a team together and competing at the highest level. He isn’t quite worried.

“It’s what we do,” Schaefer said. “This is who we are. I don’t plan on going anywhere other than continuing to win at the highest level and competing for championships. That’s where my mind is and I think that’s where our focus is at Mississippi State.”

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