Monday evening, I sat in Humphrey Coliseum along with several hundred Mississippi State fans watching the NCAA Tournament selection show.
As I looked around, I couldn’t help but think that it wasn’t that long ago that this many people wouldn’t have turned out for a women’s basketball game at Humphrey Coliseum – let alone just sit around and watch a big screen that wasn’t even showing a game.
Those in attendance Monday hollered and shook the free pom poms that were handed out at the slightest mention of MSU or Bulldog highlight shown on ESPN. They smiled and were silent while Vic Schaefer did live interviews during the selection show then went wild when they were prompted.
That’s how far things have come in a short amount of time for this program.
When I started covering the team in 2006, you could’ve thrown several handfuls of rocks into the stands and never hit anyone. Now, you have to arrive hours in advance just to ensure you’re not walking a half-mile or more to the Hump.
State averaged 6,793 fans at home this season – the seventh-best mark in the nation. Twice in the past two years the Bulldogs have had 10,500 or more fans with the top 10 crowds all-time coming during Schaefer’s tenure.
Sure, State has had success in women’s basketball before Schaefer arrived five years ago. There were stars like LaToya Thomas and Tan White and also a Sweet 16 appearance in 2010 but nothing has captured the hearts of the fan base like the way Schaefer’s teams have over the past few seasons.
To some it might seem like an overnight success story but having witnessed it firsthand, I can attest that it certainly is not. Schaefer’s first season was a struggle – finishing four games under .500 and being blown out by scores like 92-41, 100-47, 81-33 and 88-45.
But there was a glimmer of hope when the Bulldogs upset No. 11 Georgia 50-38 in the final home game of the 2012-13 season and with that, a foundation of success was laid.
Mississippi State reached the WNIT quarterfinals the following year and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament the season after.
Then came last year when the Bulldogs reached the Sweet 16 for just the second time in school history.
This year, the success has continued as MSU finished second in the SEC in both the regular season and tournament and will host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season.
Schaefer has put a good product on the floor and the fans have embraced it. We will find out if that combination will again be enough this weekend to push Mississippi State on to the Sweet 16.
Logan Lowery (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers MSU for the Journal. He blogs daily at DJournal.com