AUSTIN, Texas — Vic Schaefer built a powerhouse basketball program at Mississippi State that twice came achingly close to winning a national championship.
Then he moved home to Texas to try to build another.
His first season at Texas has Schaefer’s Longhorns riding into the NCAA Tournament as the No. 6-seed in the Hemisfair Regional, where they will play No. 11 Bradley in the first round Monday in San Marcos, Texas. Leading the way is junior center Charli Collier, who averages 20.1 points and 11.7 rebounds and is projected as a potential No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. Collier has already announced she’ll turn pro after the tournament.
“I love this team,” Schaefer said. “Once we hit March, we have to find a way to get hot … The key to these tournaments, you’ve got to get hot.”
Schaefer’s Mississippi State teams used to sizzle this time of year.
In 2017, they ended UConn’s 111-game win streak and made it to the national title game before losing to South Carolina, the top-seed in the Hemisfair Regional this season. They returned to the title game a year later, losing to Notre Dame on 3-pointer on a last-second 3-pointer.
Things were humming in Starkville, but the call from Texas lured Schaefer to the city where he was born and the state that launched his coaching career. He now lives just a short drive away from where his sister lives and his parents are buried.
Texas (18-9) wasn’t a moribund program before he arrived, it just wasn’t living up to expectations. The Longhorns were just stuck far behind Baylor in the Big 12 and hadn’t maintained the momentum of an Elite Eight appearance in 2016. The last tournament appearance in 2019 was a first-round exit. Karen Aston’s contract expired and Texas handed Schaefer a 7-year guaranteed contract worth $13.8 million.
Schaefer brought Texas an unmatched attention to detail, whether drawing up plays or making sure the team practices with the correct brand of basketball depending on the opponent or tournament. Wilson is the official ball of the NCAA Tournament.
“I’ll coach it all. I’ll coach the pregame meal. I’ll coach the getting on the bus if I have to,” Schaefer said.
The Longhorns quickly learned to trust him, Collier said.
“Vic knows it all. He has all the credentials, he has all the hardware. The man know everything,” Collier said. “We haven’t been to a Final Four. He has.”
Texas is a longshot to be a bracket-buster in a region with South Carolina, No. 2-seed Maryland (24-2) and No. 3 UCLA (16-5). But Texas was battle-tested in matchups with Big 12 champion Baylor and SEC regular-season champion Texas A&M.
Texas lost those, but Schaefer knows how to win in March.
“We took punches and we punched back. That’s what you want to see your team do,” Schaefer said. “There’s nobody they can throw at us we wouldn’t be ready for.”
Maryland boasts the nation’s highest-scoring offense at 91.3 points per game. Graduate transfer Katie Benzan is a key part of that. She leads the nation in in 3-point shooting at 50.6% and ranks No. 3 with 88 made on the season. Benzan left Harvard after setting school records for career 3-pointers, and sat out the 2019-2020 season with the intention of going to Texas. She then switched to Maryland after Texas fired Aston and hired Schaefer. She’s also a 93.5% shooter on free throws.
The Hemisfair Regional features some of the nation’s best frontcourt players.
Collier is projected as the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft. UCLA’s Michaela Onyenwere averages 18.7 points for the No. 3 Bruins and also is projected as a likely top-10 pick. Top-seed South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston was the SEC defensive player of the year and averaged a double-double along with 2.9 blocks to earn first-team All-America honors as a sophomore. Fifth-seed Georgia Tech’s Lorela Cubaj was co-defensive player of the year in the ACC. West Virginia’s Esmery Martinez averaged a double-double for the No 4-seed Mountaineers (21-6).
The coronavirus pandemic interrupted college basketball seasons across the country with games postponed and canceled. The Hemisfair Regional has the three teams with the fewest wins in the 64-team tournament..
Eighth-seed Oregon State (11-7), which was forced to sit idle for a month, will face No. 9 Florida State (10-8) in the first round, and No. 13 Lehigh (10-5) will play West Virginia.
Lehigh won the Patriot League tournament after the league and didn’t play a non-conference schedule this season.
“There were times in the season where we really questioned `should we be doing this?”‘ Lehigh coach Sue Troyan said.
South Carolina (22-4) figures to easily overpower No. 16 Mercer (19-6) in the opening round Sunday, but the Gamecocks’ depth for the rest of the tournament took a blow when senior guard LeLe Gressett was lost with a leg injury in the SEC Tournament championship game. At 6-foot-2, her athleticism made her a particularly difficult matchup, most notably when the Gamecocks use full-court pressure.