STARKVILLE, Miss. — Mississippi State was a very good basketball team last season, winning a school-record 28 games and advancing to the Sweet 16 for second time in school history.
Now the Bulldogs — with essentially the exact same roster — look like a great team.
Fourth-ranked Mississippi State won its 20th straight game to open the season on Thursday night, beating Alabama 67-54 to continue a winning streak that's lasted more than two months and includes just six home games.
Now the Bulldogs (20-0, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) are preparing for their biggest game of the season: A showdown on the road against No. 5 South Carolina (16-1, 6-0) on Monday.
The Gamecocks have won at least a share of the SEC regular season title in each of the past three seasons.
"South Carolina is really good — a Final Four team," Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. "We have aspirations of trying to be another one. It's going to be an environment that's going to be hostile and no one's going to be screaming for us.
"If you're a competitor, you've got to love the opportunity."
South Carolina's not shying away from the importance of the matchup either. Forward Alaina Coates said the Bulldogs are "definitely competition."
"We know what's on the line and this is important, especially with how they've been playing in conference play," Coates said. "This will probably be the game that kind of decides it all."
Schaefer said the reason for Mississippi State's jump into the nation's elite has been fairly simple: Everyone on the roster has improved and accepted their job.
It's especially obvious on the offensive end of the floor: The Bulldogs are averaging nearly 10 points more per game than last season and shooting 46.2 percent from the field as opposed to 39.7 percent last season.
"I think everyone just focuses on what they know they are good at, so when they come in the game, they know exactly what they need to do, what needs to be fixed, and what doesn't need to be fixed," senior guard Dominique Dillingham said.
The star for Mississippi State continues to be 6-foot-1 guard Victoria Vivians. The junior was the team's best player from the moment she stepped on the court more than two years ago and she's continued to improve.
Her scoring average is exactly the same as last season at 17.1 points per game, but her efficiency is better, with her shooting percentages from the field and free-throw line improving. Her assist rate has nearly doubled from last season and she's tied for the team lead in steals.
"She is learning to enjoy the assist," Schaefer said. "She has made some really good choices with the ball. When you add the rebounding, the defense and the assist piece to what we knew was a very prolific scoring piece, that's when you start molding and putting together an All-American basketball player."
Vivians has always been a bit of a reluctant star, but has grown into the role during her career. She also enjoys a good relationship with Schaefer, though she'll occasionally roll her eyes at some of his folksy sayings like "Praise the Lord and go 'Dogs!"
But when it comes to Schaefer's basketball knowledge, Vivians is all ears.
"Everything he says is true," Vivians said. "We have to get better on the defensive end and the offensive end. Our offense is not fully ready. We are still making mistakes. Improving both aspects of the game will help us become a more polished, finished product."
Mississippi State's improved post play is helping the Bulldogs realize those goals. Senior Chinwe Okorie and sophomore Teaira McCowan — always a physically-imposing pair at 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-7 — are both scoring more and at more efficient rates.
The bench — led by McCowan, Blair Schaefer and one of the team's few newcomers Roshunda Johnson — has also been more productive.
Schaefer said he's been particularly pleased that all his players are genuinely happy about the success of others.
"I think that's what allows a team to be special. We don't have kids walking around with the 'I' on their forehead," Schaefer said. "That's unique in today's athletic world."
This article was written by David Brandt from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.