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Alabama @ Mississippi State: Game Preview

The Crimson Tide basketball team will try to recover from yet another close loss by attempting to complete a season sweep of the Mississippi State Bulldogs on Wednesday night in Starkville's Humphrey Coliseum.

Tip-off is set for 8 p.m. local time, and the game will be televised throughout the Southeast on CSS. Those without access to CSS can watch the game online at ESPN360.

Despite holding second-half leads in 11 of its 12 SEC games, and double-digit second-half leads in 7 of its 12 games, the Tide is a mere 4-8 in conference play, tied with Auburn for 4th/5th in the SEC West. Bama is 14-12 on the season, but nearly out of time in terms of making any serious runs at postseason play. At this point, it's almost as probable that we earn an NCAA bid by going 4-for-4 in Nashville as it is that we win the additional 4 or so games total that we need to get an NIT bid. This season has always been about laying a foundation, though, and so it is very important that we finish strongly and build both confidence for our returning players and momentum for our program heading into recruiting.

The Bulldogs meanwhile are on a very different mission. They are sitting right in the middle of the proverbial NCAA tournament bubble, and as such are fighting for their lives each and every time out on the floor. They have built up a solid 19-8 record overall, and are tied for the SEC West lead with a 7-5 record in conference play. They played a relatively soft non-conference schedule, so their 12-3 record there wasn't overly impressive, leaving them with very little margin for error as their SEC record is concerned. MSU is coming off a rough week which saw them let a golden opportunity slip away in overtime against #2 Kentucky at home before surviving a nail-biter at 0-12 LSU on Saturday. They will be hoping to avenge one of their few losses tonight when Bama comes calling, after the Tide knocked them out of the rankings with a 62-57 victory in Tuscaloosa earlier this year.

Click here for my recap of the Tide's earlier win over MSU.

Read below the jump for more on the Bulldogs and the keys to an Alabama victory.

Since we've already seen MSU this year and I've already done a preview for their team and our keys to beating them, I'll paste below what I said before that game, adjusting only the stats to reflect games played since then (conference play only). Pasted material is in italics, with updated comments in normal font.

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.

Not a bad call here by me. Varnado is now 8 blocks shy of the record, so he'll break it in late February. In fact, with a big game against us, he could very well put us on the wrong end of history. I really hope poor Anthony Brock or one of our other players doesn't end up on a mural in Starkville commemorating the record-breaker. Varnado's shooting numbers are down just below 50% in conference play, but his scoring, rebounding, and blocking totals have held pretty steady since we last saw him.

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.

Nothing much to add here. Sidney is still ineligible and Green will still need to bring it for us to have a chance to win (he did just that when we beat them in Tuscaloosa). The only major difference here for either team is that Chris Hines will be seeing a lot more action here than he did in the first meeting.

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.

Johnson's 3-point totals have fallen off a bit, but he's still their best shooter and currently leads the team in scoring. We did a fantastic job on him in Tuscaloosa, and will need to do so again if we hope to contain State.

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.

Back in January, we applied tight full-court pressure to Bost, their best ball handler, and prevented him from getting into any kind of offensive rhythm. This plan was very successful last time and we would be wise to emulate it this time.

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.

Last time against State, we did exactly what I suggested above and we did it very well. We allowed MSU very few open shots from outside and prevented penetration by keying in on Bost. If we do both of those things again, we'll have a good chance.

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.

Offensively, I actually think we have been doing a lot of the things I mentioned above better as of late. We've been hitting more 3's, getting to the free throw line more, and Grant's decision to reduce Torrance's playing time has actually had a positive impact on his production in terms of scoring and shooting. The big question now becomes, can we keep the defensive intensity up for an entire 40 minutes? Because that is precisely what it will take to beat a good team like MSU on the road and precisely what we have failed to do in most of our recent losses.

Roll Tide.