December 6, 2018 10:02:46 AM
Three months isn't a large sample size.
By all indications, though, Anriel Howard appears to be fitting in quite nicely with the Mississippi State women's basketball team.
"I think where Anriel is learning to pass the ball is off the bounce," MSU coach Vic Schaefer said. "She has to learn when people rotate and help she has to find that next person that's open -- Where did that help come from? -- Whether it is ball-side wing or if it is (to) T(eaira McCowan) on a quick up. That is something we have been talking about and continuing to work on with her."
Eight games also isn't a very big part of your season, especially when your team is making a habit of playing in the final game of the season.
Despite that fact, Jazzmun Holmes is showing she used the last three years to watch, to learn, and to understand Schaefer wants all of his point guards to value the basketball.
Holmes' play has been one of the biggest reasons why No. 6 MSU hasn't lost a step from its program-record 37-win season in 2017-18 and is primed to make a third-straight appearance in the national title game. No. 6 MSU (8-0) will face its biggest home test of the 2018-19 campaign at 7 p.m. Thursday when it plays host to No. 18 Marquette (6-1) at Humphrey Coliseum.
MSU enters the game coming off its best victory of the season, a 67-49 win against then-No. 10 Texas in Austin, Texas. The victory, which came in front of a nationally televised audience, showcased the balance and athleticism of the Bulldogs, who took charge in the first quarter and led by double digits most of the way.
The victory came against an opponent that was without two starters. Still, it came in a hostile environment, one in which MSU suffered its last non-conference loss. The fact that Holmes led the way with 17 points showed this year's team is indeed different and, like many are suggesting, has the potential to be better than the senior-laden group squad led by Victoria Vivians, Roshunda Johnson, Blair Schaefer, and Morgan William.
The conversation starts with Holmes, who was steady last season in her backup role to William. Through eight games last season, Holmes was scoring 5.4 points per game and was shooting 40 percent from the field. She also had 33 assists and nine turnovers. Coupled with William (43 assists, eight turnovers), the Bulldogs had two point guards who enabled the Bulldogs to get the most out of nearly every possession.
This season, Holmes has raised her level of play. The senior is averaging 6.9 ppg. and is shooting 51.3 percent from the field. She also has 36 assists and eight turnovers. Those numbers aren't drastically different from her junior season, but the changes reflect the leadership Holmes is providing.
MSU enters the game against Marquette with four players averaging double figures. Andra Espinoza-Hunter is right behind McCowan (18.6 ppg.), Anriel Howard (12.8), Chloe Bibby (12.6), and Jordan Danberry (11.1) at 9.6. The Bulldogs also are averaging 93.8 ppg., which eclipses the mark of 82.5 at this point last season.
If you recall, last season's team, which Schaefer said was his highest-scoring squad in his career, was shooting 45.6 percent from the field through eight games. This year's team is hitting 52.3 percent from the field and 39.3 percent from 3-point range. Both numbers are an improvement from last season.
"I think that is the uniqueness of this team right now is we take what people give us," Schaefer said Nov. 29 after a victory against Little Rock. "I thought (against Little Rock) we took what they gave us. I thought Teaira played with a lot of energy early. I think they both (played with a lot of energy early). When you have 15, nine and I think Chloe had eight, so you have 32 rebounds between three players. That is pretty good. But that's kids competing."
McCowan continues to be a double-double machine. The 6-foot-7 senior center is shooting 70.5 percent from the field, which is an increase from 61.4 percent last season. That number could go even higher if you consider the majority of the teams in the Southeastern Conference likely won't double- and triple-team her.
Bibby and Danberry also are have blossoming in bigger roles. Bibby shot 39.6 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from 3-point range last season in her first year in Starkville. This season, Bibby is a prime example of the Bulldogs taking what defenses give them because she is usually open on the wing when teammates penetrate and kick the ball out for an open shot. Bibby has been converting most of those passes by hitting 54.3 percent from the field and 57.9 percent from 3-point range. She has been ready and willing to shoot with a form that looks a little quicker from last season.
Danberry gives the Bulldogs a versatile performer who can create off the dribble. This season, she is showing the signs of becoming more consistent in the mid-range game. In shooting 61.5 percent from the field, the transfer from Arkansas, who didn't join the Bulldogs until this point last season, has been one of the team's best stories.
The continued maturation of Bre'Amber Scott, Jessika Carter, Myah Taylor, and Xaria Wiggins only will bolster a lineup that just could turn out to be even deeper than the 2017-18 squad.
Count on the Bulldogs to get there because Schaefer knows it is harder to stay on top once you get there. That's why he is going to push all of his players to continue to get better to help this year's team write a different ending to a championship run. That work just might begin with Howard, who is shooting a career-best 46.9 percent from the field and is second on the team in scoring.
"She has added the range to her game. She has the 15-foot shot to her game. She needs to add getting to the rim explosively to her game and then when people help off can she find that next person. It is hard to do that. She has been here three months."
Three months isn't a long time, but she and the Bulldogs have made significant improvement in that time. That development makes the rest of the marathon even more fun to see how much better MSU will get.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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