Vic Schaefer, on goals to go: ‘I was hired to bring a top-10 program to Texas’
After leading Mississippi State to a couple of Final Fours, new Longhorns coach determined to rebuild the women's basketball program at Texas
Vic Schaefer begins his first season as Texas women’s basketball coach Wednesday with an impressive résumé, unrestrained optimism and reasonable hopes of elevating the Longhorns into a national championship contender.
Schaefer has a record that supports his ambition. His Mississippi State teams reached the NCAA championship games in 2017 and 2018, a level the Longhorns haven’t achieved since they became the first undefeated national women’s champions in 1986. Texas has been to only two Final Fours since winning that championship, in 1987 and 2003.
Not that success will come easily. Texas has just two returning starters, junior center Charli Collier and sophomore guard Celeste Taylor, and not a lot of depth. Only nine players will be available for the opener against SMU, coached by former Longhorns star and women’s assistant Travis Mays. But Schaefer is fired up, even if the maximum allowable attendance in the Erwin Center is 1,300 because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“I think we have a chance to be really good. But we’re gonna have a lot of growing pains,” Schaefer said Tuesday. “Learning to understand how hard we expect you to play. We don’t apologize for being demanding. For young kids, typically it’s your incoming freshmen. For me, it’s my entire team because they’ve never been around me or my staff. There’s a whole ‘nother level you can go to. You just ain’t never been there. I have to be the guy to help you figure that out.”
Schaefer, 59, brings an energetic, often intimidating full-court defense to Texas, and an adjustment period is necessary for a team lacking depth and familiarity with his system.
He is working with a roster reduced by injury and uncertainty in the frontcourt. Elyssa Coleman, a 6-3 freshman, will miss the season after undergoing ACL surgery. Texas is trying to obtain an NCAA an eligibility waiver that would allow Lauren Ebo, a 6-4 junior who transferred in from Penn State, to play this season instead of sitting out. For now, that leaves the 6-5 Collier and a pair of freshmen, 6-2 Deyona Gaston and 6-5 Precious Johnson. Collier expects to play a lot of minutes.
“I’m definitely gonna have to play 40 minutes,” Collier said. “But it’s something we’ve been conditioned for. Trust me, we’ve been running. You can play a game with six or seven. Notre Dame’s done it.”
One player temporarily missing is Schaefer’s new point guard, Kyra Lambert, a graduate transfer from Duke who’s out with an unspecified injury. She has a history of knee problems.
Collier, an all-Big 12 first team selection last season after averaging team bests with 13.1 points and 10.5 rebounds, needs to become more consistent. Taylor, the second leading returning scorer, averaged 9.3 points but shot just 34% from the field. Even so, Taylor, a 5-11 guard, showed flashes with 22 points at TCU and 27 against Oklahoma in consecutive games late in the season.
Taylor said the new system suits her.
“I was super excited to hear that coach Schaefer and his staff were coming,” Taylor said. “Bringing along his style of play of getting up and down the floor, pushing tempo, picking up full court. That’s how I love to play. Get on the floor, dive for those loose balls, pressure the ball 24/7.”
One thing Schaefer needs to accomplish is a reduction in turnovers. His predecessor, Karen Aston, had a 184-83 record in eight seasons that included a trip to the Elite Eight in 2016 and three other appearances in the Sweet 16. But Aston’s teams were plagued by careless turnovers, never finishing a season ranked better in that category than 118thnationally. The Longhorns ranked 207thand 194ththe last two years.
Schaefer’s first four teams at Mississippi State also had trouble with turnovers, ranking between 87th and 309th, although improving each season. But his last four teams finished between No. 3 and 31, and Schaefer’s aggressive defense produced turnover margins that ranked in the top 12 for seven straight seasons.
Reducing turnovers has been an emphasis for Schaefer with his new team as well.
“We can’t throw it away, we can’t waste valuable possessions,” Taylor said. “We’ve struggled a little bit with that. It’s a learning process.”
Something else Schaefer needs to rectify: the Baylor issue. Aston lost 18 of 19 head-to-head matchups with the Bears and coach Kim Mulkey.
Schaefer took a step earlier in November toward providing more resistance against the Big 12 steamroller when he signed three of the top 25-ranked high school recruits and two highly regarded junior college players, a class rated No. 4 in the country by ESPN.
He hopes, and needs, to add more players like them.
“I was hired to bring a top-10 program to Texas,” Schaefer said. “We want to be a top-10 program year in, year out, because if you are that, then you’ve got a chance to do the next thing, which is win championships.”