Washington coach Mike Neighbors spent time watching Mississippi State play last summer, and now he hopes his team can beat the Bulldogs. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)
Last summer, when Mike Neighbors asked longtime friend Vic Schaefer if he could spend a few days observing the Mississippi State women’s basketball team, neither could have known their teams would meet six months later in the NCAA tournament Sweet 16.
Trips like that are an annual ritual for the 47-year-old Neighbors. The Washington coach essentially job shadows peers in college basketball and admittedly, “steals ideas that work for us” and “picks the brains” of people he admires.
“I always pick somebody to learn from and I picked Mississippi State,” Neighbors said. “I was there for three days. I’m not sure he’s going to be real happy about that now.”
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No. 2 seed Mississippi State (31-4) faces No. 3 Washington (29-5) at 4:11 p.m. PT Friday in the regional semifinal at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City.
Both teams have set school records for most wins in a season and the Sweet 16 pairing will be their first ever meeting.
However, Neighbors and Schaefer share an 18-year friendship that began when they were at Arkansas on coach Gary Blair’s staff
From 1999 to 2001, Neighbors was director of operations with the Razorbacks when Schaefer was an assistant.
“Me and Vic are pretty good friends,” Neighbors said. “Taught his son to play guitar. I sat on his couch when I was working for Blair. … I spent a lot of years on Vic’s couch.
“I wouldn’t be coaching – I have a lot of people (to thank) – but Vic is certainly one. I’ve watched them a lot.”
During the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament, MSU looked a lot like UW, especially offensively.
The Bulldogs averaged just 64.3 points in three SEC tournament games, but they exploded last week. Mississippi State hammered No. 15 Troy 110-69 in the opener before clobbering No. 7 DePaul 92-71 on Sunday.
Their 202 points is the third most in the NCAA tournament after Connecticut’s 210 and Baylor’s 205.
Neighbors’ stint with the Bulldogs in Starkville, Miss. last summer may give him insight on a team that’s somehow thriving in the postseason while undergoing an unorthodox transition.
In the past two games, Schaefer sat four starters, including seniors Breanna Richardson, Dom Dillingham and Chinwe Okorie and junior guard Victoria Vivians, MSU’s leading scorer who averages 16.1 points.
The quartet, which represents four of the team’s top six scorers, started 19 straight games before the NCAA tournament. However, Schaefer was unhappy with the Bulldogs’ performance.
“There are just some things that have to be done,” he told the Clarion-Ledger when asked about the lineup changes following the win over Troy. “It’s bigger than the game.
“The film don’t lie. Sometimes you think you’re running hard and you’re really not … I think all of our kids had a lesson in that today.”
Junior guard Morgan William, who averages 10.2 points, is the only mainstay in the lineup that now includes sophomore center Teaira McCowan, senior forward Ketera Chapel and junior guards Roshunda Johnson and Blair Schaefer, the coach’s daughter.
“Obviously, it worked fine,” Schaefer said. “We’ll just keep it at that. It’s one of those things that there’s so much that goes into putting yourself in this position.”
Meanwhile, Washington raced past No. 6 Oklahoma 108-82 after knocking off No. 11 Montana State 91-63 in the tournament opener.
Led by Kelsey Plum, the most prolific scorer in NCAA history, the Huskies have tallied 199 points in the tournament.
The 5-foot-8 senior guard is averaging 33.5 points in the tourney, which is nearly two points higher than her season average.
Washington has also received dominant performances from senior center Chantel Osahor, who is averaging 16 points, 17 rebounds and five assists in the tournament.
She needs 12 rebounds to set the Pac-12 single-season rebounds record and is 32 away from the NCAA mark.
Freshman guard Aarion McDonald and junior guard Natalie Romeo are averaging 16.5 and 15.5 points, respectively, in the NCAA tournament. McDonald is 11 of 17 from the field and Romeo is 9 of 19 on three-pointers.
After a 70-69 upset loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 quarterfinal, the lopsided wins in the NCAA tournament have seemingly restored the Huskies’ confidence and has them believing they can return to the Final Four for a second straight year.
“I do think our team has a sense of confidence,” Neighbors said. “Someone mentioned the other day that we walked with a little bit of a swagger. I don’t think we had that last year.”