The Crimson Tide basketball team opened up SEC play in style by running away from the Mississippi State Bulldogs 75-57 on Saturday afternoon. With long-time MSU coach Rick Stansbury pulling out all the stops to get his star players eligible just in time for this game, Bama's lopsided road win sent a statement to the SEC West.
This Alabama team has been slowly improving ever since the embarrassment that was the Paradise Jam tournament, so a win over a Mississippi State team that has also struggled, even coming on the road, wasn't a complete surprise. However if you were to tell most Alabama fans that we'd only make one 3-pointer the entire contest, most would have bet their house and life savings on Bama not winning this one.
Instead, the poise of freshman point guard Trevor Releford, the focus of JaMychal Green, and yet another outstanding defensive effort carried the Tide through a big run in the second half and propelled Bama to a 1-0 record in SEC play. By beating a fully-stocked (if not exactly finely tuned) Mississippi State team that has been the top dog in the West division for some time and that was picked to win the division again this year badly on their home court to open SEC play was a very encouraging sign for Alabama, not only regarding our ability to be competitive in the SEC this season, but also in the relative strength of our program moving forward in the Western division.
On an individual level, the most interesting thing of note was the playing rotation. With 11 of the 12 scholarship players healthy and dressed, 84% of Bama's minutes went to the five starters: Releford, Davis, Mitchell, Hines and Green, all of whom played between 32 and 37 minutes. Senario Hillman played the sixth man role, but there was a big drop off, as he only saw 15 minutes of action. The only other players who saw live game action were Ben Eblen, whose 6 minutes were primarily due to early foul trouble on the part of Releford, and Andrew Steele, who made two crucial offensive plays in his 7 first-half minutes to prevent Mississippi State from gaining momentum during that stretch.
The starting five was outstanding together, so Grant had little incentive to shift things around too much. Releford was very good at reading the game throughout and really dictated things. For most of the game he set the tempo for Bama, and in the latter stages of the second half when Bama had built up a lead, he dissected the Bulldog defense to put the game out of reach for good. He ended with a game-high 17 points and 4 assists while committing only 2 turnovers. His backcourt mate Charvez Davis snapped out of his red-hot shooting streak, going only 1-for-5 from the arc, but Davis had three very impressive drives and finishes, including two "and-one's " to finish 4-of-6 inside the arc. MSU was focusing on his shooting defensively, but Davis showed flashes of being able to hurt defenses moving towards the goal in ways that frankly he hasn't shown before.
Tony Mitchell and Chris Hines both had very solid but characteristic games. Hines scored 7 points and grabbed 10 rebounds while Mitchell added 11 points and 9 rebounds. The battle royale inside though was fought between MSU's Renardo Sidney and Bama's JaMychal Green. Green did an outstanding job defensively on him all afternoon, never allowing Sidney to get good positioning and limiting his touches around the rim. Sidney finished with only 2 points on 1-of-8 shooting. On the other end, Sidney proved to be too strong for Green to post up, and Sidney clearly got the better of Green during the first half after several post-up attempts. In the second half, however, Green (and the coaches) changed things up and Green began to face him up, which proved highly successful. Green went 6-of-10 in the half, including several long jumpers to finish the game with 16 points, 11 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 steals and 2 assists. Even more important than Green's outplaying Sidney was the maturity and focus that Green showed in how he responded to getting shut down in the first half. Whatever happened with his suspension earlier this year, it's paying off in the way he's responded.
Despite the giddiness of most Bama basketball fans after yesterday, keep in mind this is just one of 16 SEC games, and while MSU is very talented on paper, they are struggling mightily right now as a program on several dimensions. Enjoy this win, but we've got to keep improving and keep our focus moving forward. Conference games are going to be coming every 3-4 days from now on, so we have to be ready. Up next is South Carolina (fresh off an overtime win over top-25 Vanderbilt) at home on Wednesday night.