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Bama opens SEC play in Starkville

The Crimson Tide basketball team will open its SEC slate on Saturday afternoon when they travel to Starkville to take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs. The game will tip off at 3:00 CT and will be televised regionally on the SEC Network and streamed nationally by ESPN3.

Both teams finished the non-conference portions of their schedules with 8-6 records, but frankly Alabama was significantly more impressive (or at least less embarrassing) when it came to non-conference results. MSU played only three quality major opponents (to Bama's five) and was blown out in all three games, while Bama was very competitive in four of the five games. MSU also lost to three weak opponents (Florida Atlantic, East Tennessee State and Hawaii) while Alabama lost to one (St. Peter's). The two teams shared one common November opponent in Troy, and while Bama won comfortably, MSU needed overtime to put away the 1-12 Trojans.

So why have the pre-season SEC West favorites been so bad in non-conference play? The most obvious reason is that the Bulldogs haven't had the services of their two best players throughout the non-conference stretch. Controversial big man Renardo Sidney, a 2009 class McDonald's All-American and top-10 national recruit who was suspended by the NCAA for the entirety of last season, has only played two games this season due to three separate suspensions. When in the lineup, he has been the team's top player. Meanwhile, junior point guard Dee Bost, the team's floor general for both the 2009 NCAA tournament season and the 2010 SEC West title season, has missed every single game thus far this season due to an NCAA suspension. MSU missing these two players is the equivalent of Bama missing both Releford and Green for the entire season.

As luck (and Rick Stansbury) would have it, though, both Sidney and Bost will return to the court on Saturday, meaning Bama will not be facing the team that has been downright bad during non-conference play, but rather will be the first team to face the actual Mississippi State roster that was overwhelmingly chosen to win the SEC West this year. The good news is that the Tide will also have the services of its essentially its full roster for the first time all season. JaMychal Green is back from suspension and playing very well, Andrew Steele is finally back from injury, freshmen Charles Hankerson and Jason Carter will be available once again after a one-game suspension, and Trevor Releford is healthy now after missing some time with a stomach illness.

Full MSU roster breakdown below the jump...

The combo of Bost, Sidney and senior wing Ravern Johnson gives the Bulldogs by far the most talented point-wing-post trio in the SEC West. The 6'7" Johnson is a known commodity in the conference as a dangerous lanky sharpshooter. In Bost and Sidney's absence, he has led the team this season with 20.1 points per game while tearing it up from the arc with 3.2 made treys per game while shooting a sizzling 39% from long range. Bost's numbers from the point guard position last season were 13.0 points and 5.2 assists per game. He's experienced, can score, and is one of the best distributors in the league. Sidney has only played a grand total of 45 minutes in his collegiate career, but he's scored 31 points and grabbed 9 rebounds in those limited minutes, so clearly his recruiting hype wasn't completely unfounded, even if his suspensions and behavior have rightfully led many to call him a bust. Bust or not, he'll be suited up in white and maroon Saturday and we'll be tasked with stopping him.

The two players most likely to round out the starting lineup are senior forward Kodi Augustus and senior guard Riley Benock. The 6'8" Augustus, a significant contributor last season, has averaged 13.1 points and 8.1 rebounds in Sidney and Bost's absence. Benock, a player who barely saw playing time last year, has led the team in minutes thus far this season. Along with Johnson, he's one of the team's two top shooters, averaging 2.0 made treys per game while shooting 44% from the arc. Who knows how things will play out with the big roster shakeup, but I'd count on the combo of Bost-Benock-Johnson-Augustus-Sidney to be your starting five moving forward. On paper, that's a very talented lineup that statistically complement each other nicely, but it's anyone's guess how well they'll play together on the court.

The first guard off the bench is likely to be freshman Jalen Steele, a player Grant had pursued in the 2010 recruiting class who is averaging 5.9 points per game this season. JuCo transfer Brian Bryant and redshirt sophomore Twany Beckham have split time at point this year, but with Bost returning, both are sure to see their minutes reduced drastically and will battle one another for the backup role. With former starter Elgin Bailey leaving the program after his high-profile altercation with Sidney on national televsion, sophomore Wendell Lewis is likely to receive the bulk of the minutes off the bench down in the post.

Mississippi State under coach Rick Stansbury has been the most consistent program in the SEC West over the last decade, with six NCAA tournament appearances and five top finishes in the SEC West under their belts during that time. However, many feel that Stansbury's teams have often underperformed given the talent on hand, that his program lacks discipline, and that his recruiting tactics are questionable. The Sidney debacle has only exacerbated those perceptions, and now he finds himself in serious need of a turnaround this season. The controversial decision to bring back Sidney has made it pretty clear that he's banking on the return of both Bost and Sidney as what he needs to finish atop the SEC West again this time around and change the trajectory of his program. With the West as weak as it's ever been and the difference those two players could make, he might win that bet.

Or he might not. Anthony Grant and the Tide will have a lot to say about that on Saturday. If Bama can win in Starkville it would send a huge message to supporters of both programs and around the SEC. It would put Bama on the right track moving forward this season with its first major win and first win on the road. It would also show that even with Stansbury pulling out all the stops to turn around the MSU program by beating us in Starkville on Saturday, he still couldn't save his sinking ship against an "under-sized and under-skilled" Alabama program in rebuilding mode. It would be a clear sign as to which direction each program is headed.

Winning will not come easy, as MSU with Bost and Sidney will have more raw talent on the floor, and the Bulldogs have been fairly dominant over Bama in Starkville under Stansbury. Just how strong the new-look MSU team will be on Saturday is a mystery, but if Bama plays as well as it has at home against weaker opponents, especially when it comes to knocking down shots, the Tide should be able to play with anyone in the SEC West. A loss would by no means be a surprise given MSU's talent and home court advantage, so Bama will need to play well.

Hope for the best.