Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer sees something familiar when he watches Washington guard Kelsey Plum.
The Houston native and Rockets fan said Plum affects the game the same way NBA superstar James Harden does.
“They run a lot of stuff that the Rockets run,” Schaefer said. “They spread the floor. They play off of her. She’s smart enough to find who is open, and those kids can make shots.”
Washington’s dynamic senior has averaged at least 20 points in each of her four seasons, and she has broken Jackie Stiles’ NCAA career and single-season scoring records this season. Schaefer is the next coach who will try to devise a plan to slow Plum when his Bulldogs face the Huskies on Friday in the Sweet 16.
If it’s any consolation, those who play with Plum most often – her teammates – don’t have answers for her unorthodox game, either. She has a lightning-quick left-handed release on deep shots, but she can dribble and finish easily with either hand. Though she’s just 5-foot-8, she has an array of different ways to score in the paint.
“It’s definitely not easy,” Washington guard Aarion McDonald said of practice. “Kelsey is a crafty player, so she always keeps us on our toes. One minute, we might stop her, but next time down, she gets us back. So we’re like, ‘How do we guard her?’ ”
Plum is averaging 31.8 points per game this season with a high game of 57 points. Washington guard Natalie Romeo said practicing against Plum makes her a better defender.
“I think guarding all her different moves helps us because there’s no one else who can imitate her,” Romeo said. “If we take away one thing, that’s kind of saying what one player can do, but then Kelsey will come back with a counter, and then a counter counter. Guarding her will help us guard other really good players.”
There’s more to Plum than just big scoring numbers. She shoots 53 percent from the field overall and 43 percent from 3-point range, and leads the team with 4.8 assists per game.
Schaefer has faced a player of this caliber before – he went 1-2 against Southwest Missouri State’s Stiles when he was an assistant coach at Arkansas. He hopes for better luck against Plum.
“Obviously Jackie Stiles, Kelsey Plum – those are two of the best to ever play the game, and from an offensive standpoint, they are just so multi-dimensional,” Schaefer said. “Their coaches use them in such a good way, smart, and so it’s a tall task. There’s no question about it.”
Mississippi State has yet to reach the Elite Eight. The Bulldogs have reached the Sweet 16 three times, including last year, but last season ended with a 98-38 loss to Connecticut.
“Certainly last year at this time, wasn’t the best,” Schaefer said. “But at the same time, I think our kids not only learned from that experience for this game, but I think they learned from it the entire season. I think it’s obviously prepared us.”
Baylor has been near the top of women’s college basketball for years, but the Lady Bears have at times fallen short of expectations in NCAA Tournament play.
If history repeats itself, top-seeded Baylor could fall short again. The Lady Bears were a No. 1 seed in 2013 when they lost to Louisville in Oklahoma City. Now, they again take a No. 1 seed into a Sweet 16 matchup Friday with Louisville, in the same building as the previous loss.
The Lady Bears were a No. 1 seed in 2011 and lost in the Elite Eight. The Lady Bears were a No. 1 seed again last year when they lost to Oregon State in the Elite Eight.
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said she doesn’t make too much of the similar circumstances or the past upsets.
“You win some you shouldn’t and you lose some that you probably shouldn’t, but you can’t let them just kill your spirit,” she said. “You can’t let them run you out of the business. You just motivate yourself, pick yourself back up and keep coaching.”
Baylor guard Alexis Jones, who missed a month with a knee injury, is back for the NCAA Tournament. She played 12 minutes in her first game back against Texas Southern and scored five points. In her second game, she played 22 minutes and had eight points, six rebounds and five assists in a win over California.
“She looked good to me,” Mulkey said. “She missed some shots. I don’t know if that had anything to do with her being off for a month, but she just gives us a sense of security.”
Mulkey was asked what stands out most about Louisville’s Asia Durr, a sophomore guard who averages 19.4 points and has made 114 3-pointers this season.
“That I recruited her and didn’t get her,” Mulkey said with a laugh.
She then elaborated.
She’s a phenomenal player,” Mulkey said. “She can score from the perimeter. She can take you off the dribble. She was not healthy last year. Now she’s healthy, and you’re seeing the real Asia Durr, and she’s just a handful to guard. They do a lot of things with her and through her. She is the catalyst that makes them go.”
Who: Mississippi State vs. Washington
Where: Oklahoma City
When: 6 p.m. Friday