STARKVILLE • Less than a minute into the opening statement of her introductory press conference on Tuesday, new Mississippi State coach Nikki McCray-Penson acknowledged her predecessor Vic Schaefer and the job he did building the Bulldogs’ program over the last eight seasons.
MSU achieved six-straight NCAA Tournament appearances, back-to-back national championship appearances, two SEC regular-season championships and one SEC Tournament title during Schaefer’s tenure.
Now it is McCray-Penson’s job to not only maintain that recent success, but also continue to building upon it.
“This is a top 10 program and nothing has changed about that,” McCray-Penson said. “I want to win national championships, that’s my DNA. I want to win SEC championships and we will.
“To come into a program that is known for that, where the fan base is already established and you’re in a position to create a home-court advantage every single night, that is really awesome. It’s just about sustaining it.”
McCray-Penson knows a thing or two about winning herself as both a player and coach. She won three SEC championships and two SEC Tournament titles as a player at Tennessee and played for a national championship in 1995.
She won two Olympic Gold Medals, was a three-time WNBA All-Star and the 1997 ABL Most Valuable Player in the same season she helped the Columbus Quest to a championship.
As a coach, McCray-Penson was an assistant for four SEC championships, three SEC Tournament championships and one national title at South Carolina, and another Sun Belt Tournament championship at Western Kentucky. She was also the Conference USA Coach of the Year at Old Dominion this past season.
“I’ve been around winning programs my whole life,” McCray-Penson said. “I took a really good blueprint from Tennessee and South Carolina and took that to Old Dominion. I kind of shaped it the way that fits me and my personality.
“I’m a competitor and my DNA is winning championships. I want to be playing on the last day every season. That’s a beautiful thing and I know what that feels like.”
McCray-Penson signed a four-year, $3.1 million contract with the Bulldogs. The 48-year old’s base salary will be $775,000 per season.
McCray-Penson inherits a State squad that returns All-SEC selections Rickea Jackson and Jessika Carter as well as six other letterwinners. The Bulldogs will also have former Michigan State transfer Sidney Cooks eligible and a nationally ranked recruiting class coming in.
“Obviously the cupboard is not bare,” McCray-Penson said. “I came into a situation where you really only lose one starter and 70 percent of the offense returns. We’ve got our top two scorers and rebounders and everybody played. They have the experience of playing and know what it takes to win and compete in the SEC.”
McCray-Penson coached against Mississippi State during her time on Dawn Staley’s staff at South Carolina and knows the reputation the Bulldogs had under Schaefer for playing disciplined defense and a dribble-drive offense.
The Collierville, Tennessee, native wants to inject a little bit of her own style of play into the playbook to reflect her own characteristics.
“My team’s identity will be similar to how I played the game,” McCray-Penson said. “If you’ve ever seen me play, I did the little things and took a lot of pride in that. If you watched our team at Old Dominion, we were a team that played very fast and put a lot of pressure on you. We’re going to have an identity where when we step out onto the court, teams are going to know that.
“It’s going to be a fun and exciting brand of basketball.”