#23 Mississippi State @ Alabama: Game Preview

Bulldogs vs Crimson Tide coverage

For the second game in a row, the Crimson Tide basketball team will host a ranked opponent in Tuscaloosa's Coleman Coliseum. By the time most college students on the West Coast even roll out of bed on Saturday morning, we'll probably know whether or not this rebuilding Alabama team under first-year coach Anthony Grant will have a chance to make a serious run at postseason play or not.

The early tip-off is set for 11 a.m. local time, and a few tickets remain on sale here. The game will be televised on CBS, but for those of you outside the Southeast, beware that your local CBS affiliate may instead opt to show another game. If that is the case, it will be shown online at CBSsports.com.

The Tide is attempting to shake a three-game losing skid in which the team has lost a second half lead in each game. Bama is now 11-7 on the season, but only 1-3 in SEC play. After things were seemingly running smoothly with an 11-4 start, the team appears to have lost a bit of confidence after letting leads slip away in the three consecutive losses. It is absolutely essential for the Tide to rebound and find a way to hold on against a talented Bulldog squad visiting on Saturday morning. A win could put the Tide back on track not only by moving to a game under .500, but also by giving the Tide its second victory of the year over a projected NCAA tournament team.

The Bulldogs meanwhile will bring a #23 ranking in the AP poll to Tuscaloosa along with a perfect 3-0 record in SEC play. Mississippi State is 15-3 on the season with a win over traditional powerhouse UCLA in nonconference play and a win on the road against a ranked Ole Miss team in conference play. They are currently projected as a #7 seed in the NCAA tournament and already have a 1.5 game lead atop the SEC West standings. With a solid season thusfar, the Bulldogs are in position to claim the title as the SEC West's best team of the past decade, having qualified for the NCAA tournament six of the past eight years to go along with an SEC championship in 2004. A seventh NCAA appearance this year (which appears likely) would certainly clinch that title.

Read below the jump for more info on #23 Mississippi State and what the Tide needs to do to win this one...

You can't start a discussion of the MSU basketball team without first mentioning senior forward Jarvis Varnado. Just a quick glance at his 14.1 points per game and 11.2 rebounds per game would be enough to make him a shoe-in for first team All-SEC. Add to that the fact that he shoots over 62% from the floor and Varnado is easily an SEC Player of the Year candidate. However it is on defense where Varnado really makes his name. He was voted SEC Defensive MVP his sophomore and junior seasons and is arguably the best defensive player in the nation this year. His 5.3 blocks per game is a mind-boggling statistic and in fact puts him only 45 blocks shy of the all time college basketball record. At his current pace he will get there by mid-February.

Junior forward Kodi Augustus joins Varnado in the starting lineup down low. Although he is not as strong as Varnado defensively or on the boards, he has a better outside shot and in fact has already nailed 20 3s on the season. Varnado and Augustus are backed up in the post by sophomore forward Romero Osby and freshman center Wendell Lewis. (Freshman superstar Renardo Sidney is still ineligible to play due to allegations of NCAA violations--not a surprise given M$U's questionable recruiting tactics in recent years). To even neutralize Varnado and MSU's other talented forwards, the Tide will need huge games from both JaMychal Green and Justin Knox. Bama's biggest offensive threat in the post--Green--will likely have to deal with Varnado as a defensive matchup, and it's crucial that he not back down when Varnado's blocks inevitably start to add up. Knox must keep Varnado off the boards on the defensive end to prevent offensive rebounds.

Although Mississippi State has one of the most talented front courts in the country, their guard play is often underrated. All three of their starting guards average double figures and can hurt you in multiple ways. All three are threats from behind the arc (boy, I wish we could say that...) but 6'7" junior Ravern Johnson is the deadliest of them all. In fact, Johnson--who averages exactly three made 3s per game while shooting at over 47%--is probably the second most dangerous outside shooter we have faced all season long, or at least in the SEC, after Arkansas's Rotnei Clarke. Due to his long frame, it will be important for the Bama perimeter defenders to not give him space on the outside to get shots off.

Running the show at point guard for State is sophomore Dee Bost. Bost has excellent numbers on the season for a point guard, contributing 12.3 points and 5.6 assists each game. He is also a threat from deep, averaging nearly two made 3s per game while shooting over 36% from beyond the arc. Basically, he is an all-around solid point guard, from a scoring, shooting, and passing perspective. MSU's other starter on the perimeter is senior shooting guard Barry Stewart. Like Bost, Stewart is a solid all-around guard, adding 11.1 points and 2.5 assists per game in addition to averaging nearly two made 3s per game while shooting over 36% from beyond the arc. The Bulldogs excellent starting guards are backed up primarily by junior guard Phil Turner as well as junior guard Riley Benock.

Alabama's defense will not have the luxury of focusing on one perimeter player for the Bulldogs, the way many of the Tide's opponents choose to focus on Mikhail Torrance. All of them can shoot and score at high rates. However the Bulldog guards score over half of their points from beyond the 3-point stripe, so the biggest key in defending them is to play tight on the perimeter and force them to drive the lane where they are less comfortable and more prone to turnovers.

Offensively, Alabama will have to find a way to get Torrance involved and dangerous again in the halfcourt sets. With Vernado patrolling the lane, we can't depend on a real big night offensively from Green down low. On the same token, we must knock down more 3s from outside to get the offense rolling, especially in the second half when the guards start to tire. I realize that this issue is largely a result of us only having nine healthy scholarship players and having only two real 3-point threats, one of whom is in a shooting slump. Times are not ideal for the Tide personnel-wise, so in order to get over that hump and start winning games again, we're going to need individuals to step up in games and make plays that they aren't used to making. The good news is that with our strong defense and intensity, we really don't need all that many of those extra plays.

Here's to getting things back on track with a win over a ranked opponent and division rival at home. Roll Tide!

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