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Tide looks for spark in Magic City against Cowboys

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Oklahoma State will visit Alabama looking to end a losing streak of their own.
Oklahoma State will visit Alabama looking to end a losing streak of their own.

The Crimson Tide basketball team will look to reverse a recent losing skid in what has suddenly become a very, very important contest against the Oklahoma State Cowboys tonight in Birmingham. The game is scheduled to tip off at 8:00pm CST and will be televised nationally on ESPN2.

Upper deck tickets for the game in the BJCC Arena are still available via Ticketmaster. If you live in the Birmingham area and haven't already gotten your tickets, what are you waiting for? This is a big game for Bama against a major team, the Tide needs the win in the worst way possible, it's the last big home game before SEC play starts in January, and it's all happening conveniently in downtown Birmingham rather than Tuscaloosa.

It would be difficult to overstate just how badly Bama needs this win tonight. After losing three of the last four games while playing less than inspiring basketball, losing a fourth time in five games would leave the team heading into an outright tailspin heading into January. A win would not only stop the bleeding, but would also bolster the team's tournament resume with a pretty big non-conference win that would put the Tide on pretty solid footing results-wise heading into 2012 despite the three recent losses.

After taking the Cowboys to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments in his first two seasons in 2009 and 2010, head coach Travis Ford saw his team slip into the NIT last season after a disappointing 6-10 Big XII record. The Cowboys won a virtual home game against Alabama 68-60 in Oklahoma City that December; this is the return trip for that game.

This season the Cowboys seem pointed toward missing the tournament for a second straight year, though a road win over Alabama and a strong run in Big XII play could certainly turn things around. A solid road win over a strong mid-major Missouri State team is all Ford's team has to show in terms of building a tournament resume so far. They've also beaten five other mid-majors at home and will come into Alabama with six wins overall thus far. However, they have lost all four games against major opponents, including three games played against Stanford, Virginia Tech, and Pitt all in Madison Square Garden. They also dropped their last game, a virtual home game against New Mexico in Oklahoma City.

The Cowboys enter the game as the 45th ranked team in defensive efficiency. They don't typically force a lot of turnovers, but they are pretty solid on the interior despite their lack of size, and hold opponents to a low shooting percentage both in the paint and on the perimeter. Baskets won't come easily for Bama's struggling offense. Fortunately, Oklahoma State has struggled to create good shots of their own. They have been quite good in avoiding turnovers, but they have struggled to score efficiently, especially in the paint. One thing the Tide will need to look to avoid is fouling. The Cowboys get to the free throw line at a pretty high rate, an area in which physical teams like Georgetown and Kansas State have been able to really hurt Bama, getting lots of free points at the stripe against an otherwise stout defense.

For the second game in a row, the key player for Bama's Big XII opponent will be a 6'7" true freshman. Le'Bryan Nash leads the Cowboys in scoring with 12.7 points/game despite only playing only 26 minutes/game. Nash is a dynamic all-around player that plays more as a small forward, though, whereas Kansas State's Thomas Gipson played more as a power forward.

Oklahoma State's other double-digit scorer is tiny 5'9" senior guard Keiton Page, a big-time 3-point shooter. Despite his small size, Page needs only the smallest amount of space and time to launch his 3-point attempts. Clearly, the Tide guards will have to keep a very close eye on him at all times. He's one of those players who can really heat up and just go off if he hits a couple.

6'5" junior wing player Jean-Paul Olukemi and 6'3" sophomore guard Markel Brown provide the next two biggest scoring threats, each averaging 9.7 points/game. Both can hit outside shots, but don't do so at a high rate. However, both are very good rebounders for perimeter players, and Brown leads the team in both assists and steals. Another perimeter player, 6'0" true freshman guard Cezar Guerrero, is fifth in scoring with 7.7 points/game. Guerrero is a very good 3-point shooter and like Page, the Tide will have to keep close tabs on him when he's on the court.

Three other guards are part of the 10-man rotation: 6'1" junior Reger Dowell, 6'2" sophomore Fred Gulley, and 6'5" freshman Brian Williams. All are capable shooters, and Dowell has the highest assist rate of any player on the team.

The Cowboys have only two players in their 10-man rotation over 6'7": 6'8" freshman Michael Cobbins and 6'11" junior Philip Jurick. Together, they play just under 40 minutes per game and combine for only 5.9 points/game in scoring, though Jurick does have phenomenally high rebounding and block rates for the minutes he's on the court. Offensively, though, it's safe to say Oklahoma State is limited in the post. Hopefully this will allow Green to avoid foul trouble, but he'll have to be really careful to avoid silly fouls on the smaller players slashing to the hoop.

As a team, Oklahoma State is small and guard-heavy. Despite this, they are fairly physical and their top guards are very good rebounders and can defend bigger players. Because of their lack of size and lack of true post scoring options, they often have trouble getting good looks inside against stronger teams. Alabama needs to make sure that remains the case, of course, but also needs to keep track of the Cowboys' top shooters, particularly Page, to make sure the Pokes don't run up a lot of treys outside like Dayton did. If Alabama can contain the Oklahoma State offense, as they should be able to do with disciplined perimeter defense, the task of scoring enough points against Oklahoma State's solid defense becomes much more manageable, especially if some needed individual and coaching adjustments are made to aid Alabama's struggling offense.

One way or another, the result of tonight's game will have a huge impact on what Bama's tournament resume and team morale looks like heading into Christmas break. Tide fans will either be able to take a bit of a sigh of relief, or full-on panic will begin to set in. A lot will be riding on this game in the Magic City. Hope for the best. And get your tickets if you haven't already.