CLEVELAND: Once again, the MSU women are rolling right along

By RICK CLEVELAND,

Mississippi State's No. 3-ranked Lady Bulldogs rolled to their 19th straight victory in as many games with a 75-61 pasting of Alabama this past Sunday in Starkville.

Never mind the NFL playoffs were on the tube, a crowd of more than 9,000 showed up at The Hump to see Vic Schaefer's team carve up another foe. State trounced Ole Miss 76-45 earlier in the week. State is averaging 86 points per game, while allowing only 56 points a game. That's an average victory margin of 30, which is only surpassed in impressiveness by the fact State has drawn 6,124 fans per home game.

There are any number of ways to describe how good State has been thus far, but perhaps the best is this: The Bulldogs have been so good that Schaefer has been able to red-shirt five-star guard Myah Taylor, who has to be the nation's most heralded scout team player.

“Special,” is what Schaefer calls the atmosphere at The Hump these days.

Opponents likely have another name for it, especially when the Bulldogs turn their defense up a notch as they did in the second quarterSunday. Trailing 20-16 after the first quarter, State outscored the Crimson Tide 28-9 in the second quarter, forcing 10 turnovers in the process.

For all their offensive prowess – and Teaira McCowan and Victoria Vivians are both All Americans in that regard – the Bulldogs remain a team driven by defense. That's what Schaefer preaches and teaches most. That's what State fans have come to appreciate most – and if you don't believe that then you didn't see McCowan's ferocious block of an Ole Miss fourth quarter shot and the crowd's thunderous reaction.

Now then, State has a few days to prepare for the toughest test of the season to date – a road game at Tennessee, where the Lady Vols are 16-1 and coming off a road victory over defending national champion South Carolina. The Bulldogs will need to play for four quarters the way they played for 10 minutes in the second quarter on Sunday. (Tennessee plays a Thursday night game at Notre Dame.)

In fact, four of State's last 11 games are against ranked teams, two at home and two on the road.

Nevertheless, the team most folks seem to want to measure these Bulldogs against is the team that played its way all the way to the NCAA championship game last year. Those would be the 2016-17 State Bulldogs who finished 34-5 and most notably shocked UConn in the national semifinals.

My take: The current State team is better offensively, is catching up on defense and comes up short in only one area in comparison to last year's team. The Bulldogs don't have as much depth inside the paint as they had a year ago.

When McCowan gets in foul trouble – as she did against Ole Miss – Schaefer doesn't have another physical force such as Chinwe Okorie to insert into the game. With both McCowan and Vivians on the bench with two fouls in the second quarter, Ole Miss out-scored State 11-6. Indeed, without McCowan and Vivians on the floor, the Bulldogs looked fairly average.

Expect teams like Tennessee to pound the ball inside against McCowan in an attempt to get State's 6-foot, 7-inch junior in foul trouble. How far this team goes might well depend on how much 6-3 sophomore Zion Campbell, McCowan's back-up, improves down the stretch. Schaefer believes she Campbell, together with 6-1 Australian freshman Chloe Bibby, potentially can provide the necessary depth inside.

We shall see. Meanwhile, we marvel at the grace and technical improvement of Vivians, three-time winner of the C Spire Gillom Trophy. Vivians apparently has saved her absolute best for last, shooting a by-far-her-career-best 54 percent from the field. She has improved defensively and as a rebounder as well. She's a better player than she has been, and for three years running she has been the best in Mississippi.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.