Tide readies for showdown in Starkville

The Crimson Tide basketball team will begin a very tough stretch of games on Saturday afternoon with a road trip to Starkville's Humphrey Coliseum to take on the #20 Mississippi State Bulldogs. Tip off is set for 3:00 pm CST, and the game will be televised regionally on the SEC Network and streamed outside the region via ESPN3.

The Tide is flying high entering this stretch of games with a 13-3 overall record and a 2-0 start in SEC play, including five straight blowout wins, four of those against major-conference foes. An offensive awakening of sorts has seemingly instilled new-found confidence in the team, which had struggled during a slump in early December. Still, those five wins have all come against teams not quite up to NCAA Tournament caliber. That won't be the case against the next three opponents, all of whom are expected to Dance this year and compete among the top teams in the SEC.

The test will begin on Saturday afternoon in Starkville, where the top-20-ranked Bulldogs await on their home court. Like Alabama, the Bullies sport a very good record with only three losses. They got their 14th win last night in a tight game over Tennessee and are now 1-1 in conference play after allowing 98 points in a road loss to Arkansas this past Saturday.

The Bulldogs started off non-conference play questionably with a loss to a good mid-major in Akron at home in their second game. However they quickly turned around and won back-to-back games over then-ranked teams Texas A&M and Arizona at New York's Madison Square Garden. It turned out that neither team was deserving of their ranking, but MSU proved their worth by later taking down a good West Virginia team at home and then taking #4 Baylor down to literally the final shot before losing in a semi-road game in Dallas. Aside from the two wins in New York and the West Virginia win, they didn't beat any other top-100 teams outside of SEC play, but they did finish with a 13-2 record in their non-conference schedule.

Both Alabama and Mississippi State are projected as #7 seeds in the latest ESPN Bracketology update. They are the two of the five teams in the conference expected to make the Big Dance this season, and are both teams expected to finish near the top of the SEC this year. As we're still very, very early in conference play and both teams are in solid shape for an NCAA bid, this isn't a must-win game for either team. However, it is nothing short of a big-time SEC showdown that will have major implications for NCAA Tournament seeding and the SEC race.

Mississippi State's star player has been 6'11" junior Arnett Moultrie, an NBA-ready forward who has an unbelievable combination of length, quickness, and skill. He averages a double-double with 15.9 points and 10.8 rebounds per game in his first season with the Bulldogs after transferring from UTEP. Moultrie is a complete game-changer on both ends with his huge wingspan and ability. He's on the short list for SEC Player of the Year and is undoubtedly the best post player the Tide has had to face this season. It is unclear who will be tasked with defending him, but a big concern has to be his ability to draw fouls, which could be a huge factor if the Tide's own star forward, JaMychal Green, draws the defensive assignment. More than likely Grant will try to use some combination of Nick Jacobs, Carl Engstrom, or possibly even Moussa Gueye on him (if his knee swelling has subsided enough to play a couple minutes each half). At any rate, stopping Moultrie on the defensive end and finding ways to work around him on the offensive end will be huge keys.

After Moultrie, the big name for Mississippi State basketball has to be senior point guard Dee Bost. Bost has been one of the more underrated players in college basketball for the last couple years. He doesn't quite have the unique skills necessary for an early departure for the NBA, but short of that, he has everything you could possibly want in a college point guard. He leads the team with 16.0 points and 4.4 assists each game. Bost is a talented, experienced and well-rounded player who can penetrate, distribute, and shoot at a high level. Alabama's defense did an excellent job containing him in both games last season, but Bost is an extremely good player and slowing him down won't be easy.

Moultrie isn't the only newcomer who has vastly improved this team. True freshman Rodney Hood, a lanky 6'8" wing player, has lived up to his billing as a 5-star stud recruit. He is third on the team in scoring with 12.2 points/game. Hood is the rare wing player who, at 6'8", still has the ability to shoot at a high rate from the 3-point arc and also put the ball on the floor and drive to the hole. In fact, he averages 1.6 made 3-pointers each game while still shooting over 43% from downtown, and averages 2.1 assists each game, better than some point guards. To top it all off, he also uses his 6'8" frame on the boards, where he averages 5.3 rebounds/game. Hood is a key piece of this team, and is sure to be a star in the SEC if he sticks around long enough. He is on the short list for SEC Freshman of the Year.

The other big name on this Mississippi State team is the infamous Renardo Sidney. The 6'10", 270-pound junior big man has been a large presence for this program, both literally and figuratively, for a couple of years now. He still isn't in top-notch shape, but even playing only 21 minutes each game, Sidney's been able to use his massive body to tally over 10 points and 5 rebounds each outing. He continues to show flashes of why he was a 5-star recruit, but he still doesn't quite have the consistency to be an All-SEC player. Last season he was dominated in both games against Alabama by JaMychal Green, but with Moultrie now in the paint alongside him, there is less pressure on him. Make no mistake, for all his shortcomings, Sidney is still 6'10" and 270 with good feet and hands for his size. He'll make some plays and will cause Bama trouble inside if the already overmatched Bama interior defenders like Jacobs and Engstrom key on Moultrie.

The Bulldogs have another veteran interior player who provides nice depth and rotates in with Sidney in 6'9" junior forward Wendell Lewis, an Alabama native. Lewis isn't flashy but he's a very solid backup post player who averages 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds each game while playing almost 23 minutes/game.

With Moultrie, Sidney, and Lewis each splitting time at the two post positions, and Bost and Hood both playing nearly 34 minutes/game on the perimeter, a trio of guards fill in the remaining spots on the floor. 6'3" senior guard Brian Bryant usually starts at the off-guard spot, averaging 7.7 points each game. He isn't a great shooter, but he is a good defender and a very good rebounder for a guard. He also seemingly finds plenty of ways to score in the paint. Another 6'3" guard, sophomore Jalen Steele, splits time with him. Steele is a very good shooter, averaging 7.3 points each game, the majority coming from the 2.0 treys he hits each and every game. He is the team's best shooter and the Tide defense must account for him. 5'11" freshman guard Deville Smith is the eighth and final player in the primary rotation. He plays mostly as a point guard, and has been very effective in utilizing his quickness on both ends of the court.

Clearly, Mississippi State is extremely talented. They returned two stars in Bost and Sidney as well as some nice role players like Lewis, Bryant and Steele. When they added a superstar in Moultrie and a dynamite freshman in Hood, both of whom filled big-time needs for the team, they became one of the most athletic and dangerous teams in the league. They certainly aren't flawless, as their losses to Akron and Arkansas have shown, but they've also proven they have the ability to play with anyone in America when they took Baylor, possibly the most athletic team in the country and a true national championship contender, down to the wire on the road. Their 14-3 record also speaks for itself, even though it may be a bit inflated by playing a somewhat weak non-conference schedule.

Still, this will be by far Bama's biggest challenge since going on the road to take on #18 Kansas State--the Tide's last loss. Bama's five-game win streak has been nice, but none of those opponents were anywhere near the caliber of this Mississippi State team. To make things even more daunting, the Tide will have to overcome what is sure to be a raucous crowd at "The Hump" that will be jacked up for a big SEC showdown involving one of the SEC's biggest basketball rivalries. On Saturday we'll find out just how far Bama has come since its early December slump. Hope for the best.

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