Well, everyone, that was a dagger. The one thing Alabama had going for its tournament chances was the lack of an ugly loss (although USF was pretty close to it). That is no longer the case, as the Georgia Bulldogs beat the Crimson Tide in a performance no basketball fan should have to sit through. At this point, the NCAA Tournament shouldn't even be discussed, so I won't bother with that.
Instead, we look forward to Wednesday night, as the Mississippi State Bulldogs (11-4, 1-1 in SEC), come to Tuscaloosa. The Bulldogs have improved greatly from last season under the guidance of Rick Ray, especially on the defensive side. But this is still not a great ball club. They are coming off their biggest win of the season on Saturday, as they beat a Marshall Henderson-less Ole Miss team at The Hump.
Mississippi State is led by Sophomore G Craig Sword (14.7 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.5 APG, 2.3 SPG), who has really taken the reins on both sides of the ball. Defensively, he is every bit as good at stealing the ball as either Trevor Releford or Retin Obasohan. Offensively, he is dangerous when he beats his defender and gets a good look from inside of the arc. He isn't a great spot up shooter, but he does a great job of creating good looks. He's bad from three (20.0%) and from the line (64.3%). Another Sophomore G, Fred Thomas (7.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.8 BPG), is a very good defender, and his size and leaping ability make him a threat on the boards. He his, however, a terrible offensive player. Don't get me wrong, he plays within the system and will hit a few shots a game, but he is a terrible scorer (30.6% FG, 27.3% 3P, 56.0% FT). 5'11 Freshman G I.J. Ready (6.4 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.4 SPG) is your prototypical short point guard. He is very quick, both with his feet and his hands. He can shoot the three well (47.6%) if he is left open, but he doesn't score inside at all. He passes well, and he can be a liability on defense when he isn't forcing a steal. Speaking of shooting well when he actually has time to get a shot off, he is 8/8 from the free throw line this year, a real oddity on this Mississippi State team. Junior G Trivante Bloodman (5.7 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.3 SPG) has provided great relief off of the bench. Bloodman can steal the ball as well as anyone on the team outsie of Sword, and he is a very patient scorer, shooting 61.4% from inside the three point line. He, like the rest of the guards not named I.J. Ready, is terrible from three (14.3%) and from the line (69.0%) though. Finally, Senior G Tyson Cunningham (1.5 PPG, 0.4 RPG, 0.4 APG, 0.5 SPG) and Freshman G Jacoby Davis (2.2 PPG, 0.6 RPG, 0.6 APG, 0.4 SPG) round out the rotation.
The Bulldogs frontcourt isn't nearly as deep, as they play only three guys, but it is probably the strength of this team. Sophomore F Gavin Ware (10.4 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 0.9 SPG) is their big man. At 6'9, Ware is one of the few players in the country that can say he averages nearly a double-double a game. Our big guys will once again have their hands full defending and blocking out against him. 6'8 Senior F Colin Borchert (10.2 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.3 BPG, 0.9 SPG) is the veteran of the team. He is very good defensively, and he does have the ability to hit the three pointer, but not at a very good rate (30.9%). Borchert is also the only guy who can consistently knock down his free throws (86.7%). Lastly, 6'7 Junior F Roquez Johnson (9.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG) is a solid player off the bench, though he also isn't a very good shooter.
What To Watch For
1. Anthony Grant's Increasingly Warm Seat. There is no way of avoiding this topic when discussing Alabama basketball right now. At this point, it doesn't look good for Grant. He has to get it together. Coming into this season, many believed this to be Grant's last chance to show something, and he has not delivered. The loss to Georgia was a crushing loss, and it's not like they played out of their mind in a winning effort. Alabama was just that bad on Saturday.
2. Bad Luck. With all of that being said, Alabama has been the victim of some terrible luck. Just horrifyingly bad. Watching bad free throw shooting teams score half of their points from the free throw line has been painful for Alabama fans. Ken Pomeroy has Alabama ranked at the 4th unluckiest team in the country. FOURTH. What did we do on Thanksgiving guys? We really, really angered someone who has magical voodoo powers.
3 Keys to Victory
1. Fouls and Free Throws. This part of the preview is going to sound very repetitive. The reason why is because Mississippi State is almost identical to Georgia. This set of Bulldogs is 309th in free throw percentage at 65.0%, and they foul just as much as Georgia, as they sit at 300th in the country in this area. Fouls in college basketball (in the SEC especially) are really a crap shoot. Alabama also gets called for fouls a lot. So if Alabama is the one going to the free throw line, the Tide should be in good shape. However, if Mississippi State spends as much time at the free throw line as Georgia did, pray that they shoot like they normally do, I guess.
2. Force Outside Shots (And Don't Force Them Ourselves). Alabama actually did a really good job of this on Saturday, but Kenny Gaines decided to have his best shooting performance of the season against us. However, it didn't help that our team decided to shoot 19 of their own, of which they hit only 4 of. Alabama has to get back to driving to the lane and drawing contact. The refs this year are giving a huge advantage to offensive players on the dribble, Alabama needs to take advantage of it.
3. Get More Steals Than They Do. If there is one thing that both of these teams actually do well, it's the ability to steal the ball from the opponent. Alabama is 57th in the country in steals, with Trevor Releford and Retin Obasohan doing most of the damage. State is 15th in the country in this category, and although Sword does a lot of the stealing, the whole team seems to be pretty good at taking the ball away. This is strength-on-strength, and you have to win these battles to win the game.
Obviously, things haven't been going well for Alabama this year. But nearly every advanced metric will still tell you that the Crimson Tide is a better team than Mississippi State, by a pretty good margin. Hopefully Alabama finally has something bounce their way in this game, and the Tide can get to 2-1 in SEC play. The game tips off at 7:00 pm CST and will be televised on SEC TV.