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Mississippi State visits for key West showdown

The Crimson Tide basketball team will host the Mississippi State Bulldogs tonight in Coleman Coliseum in a rematch of the two teams' SEC opener. Tip-off is set for 7:00 CST with the game being televised regionally on the SEC Network (see listings) and streamed world-wide by ESPN3.

As SEC basketball fans are well aware by this point, Mississippi State's two biggest stars missed virtually the entirety of non-conference play, leaving the Bulldogs severely shorthanded in bad pre-conference losses to Florida Atlantic, East Tennessee State and Hawaii. In fact, like Alabama, Mississippi State's non-conference losses left them in such a hole that an at-large bid to the Dance was but a pipe dream before SEC play even began.

But as SEC basketball fans are also well aware, this is the same Mississippi State team that was the overwhelming preseason favorite in the West division. On paper, they are probably the most talented team in the West right now. The Bulldogs' first game with their full lineup came in the conference opener, and it was clear that the team with its returned starters had yet to find its chemistry. We all remember that game: a 75-57 Alabama win in Starkville that kick-started the Tide's 5-1 start to SEC play.

Since that loss in Starkville a month ago, Mississippi State seems to have found their rhythm, and they'll bring their new-found confidence into Coleman Coliseum for a game tonight that you know Rick Stansbury and his players would love nothing more than to win, especially after we showed 'em up on their own floor a month ago. This game has huge SEC West implications, as Mississippi State believes they can chase down the Tide in the West standings down the stretch if they can avenge their earlier loss by winning in Ttown tonight. However if Bama can win and complete the sweep, it would make a such comeback seem a good bit less plausible by further padding our lead in the standings.

Beyond just the West standings, though, this game has to be considered a must-win for Bama if Tide fans even want to keep daring to dream about SEC championship or NCAA tournament possibilities. Mississippi State is a dangerous team, though, so if we want to keep things rolling, Bama will likely have to turn things up a notch or two after facing a couple of weaker opponents in Auburn in LSU in the last two games.

Full MSU roster breakdown and game analysis below the jump...

Any discussion of Mississippi State's current team has to begin with junior point guard Dee Bost. The offense certainly begins--and often ends--with Bost. In SEC play, Bost is averaging 18.3 points and 6.2 assists each game. Bost does it all for the Bulldog offense: he can score from deep or off the dribble, he can create for teammates with his penetration and passing, and he controls the tempo and leads the attack in the halfcourt sets. Right now, you could make a good argument that Bost is the best point guard in the SEC--he's been that effective. Bama's defense will have to be aggressive with Bost all night, because he makes defenses pay if they don't play him close all game.

The second piece of MSU's star trio is 6'7" senior wing player Ravern Johnson. Johnson almost never leaves the floor, averaging 38 minutes per game in league play, which shows you just how important he is for this Mississippi State team. He's the team's biggest deep shooting threat, although he's been somewhat cold from the arc in SEC play thus far. Still, his lanky frame allows him to get a lot of shots off, and he's more than proven over the years that he can hit at a very high rate. His height also allows him to be a very versatile player both inside and out on both ends of the floor. He is second on the team with 13.7 points per game.

The third piece of Stansbury's star trio is the controversial 7'0" sophomore center, Renardo Sidney. Sidney still isn't in great shape, but his size and strength make him a force around the rim, especially on defense. Offensively he's started to become much more of a force as well. He's now averaging 13.0 points per game in league play, showing flashes of why he was one of the nation's top recruits in the 2009 class. Sidney also averages 7.0 rebounds per game, good for second on the team. Sidney wasn't much of a factor offensively in the previous matchup against the Tide, but the Bulldogs are making a habit of getting him more touches on the offensive end now, and he's making them count for the most part.

Aside from MSU's stars, the player who has the biggest impact is 6'8" senior forward Kodi Augustus, who starts alongside Sidney in the post. Augustus has quietly put together some pretty impressive stats in SEC play, averaging 10.4 points, a team-leading 7.7 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game. Augustus also has shooting range out the the 3-point line, and he has a propensity to draw fouls and get to the stripe. In other words, he's a pretty solid all-around forward who makes for a nice fourth option for this Mississippi State team.

The final piece of Rick Stansbury's starting lineup is 6'4" senior guard Riley Benock. Benock is a one-dimensional offensive player who looks to post up on the 3-point line and look for shots. He doesn't get tons of looks but he shoots a high percentage. He averages 1.5 made treys per game in league play. With Benock, Bost, and Johnson all playing most of the game, State usually has three good 3-ball threats on the floor at a time. No question defending the arc will be a big key in this one.

Mississippi State, like Alabama, relies very heavily on its starting five and only goes three-deep into its bench. 6'8" sophomore forward Wendell Lewis provides the depth in the post, averaging 3.3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. 6'3" freshman Jalen Steele is the first guard off the bench, averaging 3.5 points and 1.5 assists per game. 6'3" JuCo transfer guard Brian Bryant is the only other player to see regular game action in SEC play.

Again, on paper, Mississippi State has more than enough talent to compete with anyone in the SEC, but they've also had more than their fair share of issues this year: the Bost and Sidney suspensions, the highly-publicized fight between two of the players on national TV, and the mid-season departure of two key players from the program. For a program going through such disarray, though, their recent results have been quite respectable. They've won three of their last five, including a big rivalry road win over Ole Miss and a home win over top-25 Florida. At the very least, this can be a very, very dangerous team, despite what their record or RPI might say about their overall results over the course of the tumultuous season.

Sure, we beat them handily in Starkville, but keep in mind that it was a one-point game at halftime, that Mississippi State was playing their very first game with their full lineup, and that the Bulldogs--especially Ravern Johnson--were ice cold form the arc. Since then MSU has done nothing but improve, so don't expect another easy win for Bama. In fact, we'll likely be in need of playing even better than we have been in our last couple of games to win this one.

Aside from our own shooting, the two biggest keys in this one will be locating MSU's shooters on defense and the big JaMychal Green-Renardo Sidney matchup on both ends of the floor. The Bulldogs are averaging 23 attempts each SEC game from beyond the arc, so clearly they like to shoot from deep. Bama must ensure that the looks they get are not easy ones--Bost, Johnson and Benock can all hurt us if left open or given space. We got a preview of the Green-Sidney matchup in Starkville, where Sidney proved too strong for Green around the rim in the first half, but Green proved too quick and conditioned for Sidney to handle away form the rim in the second half. Sidney rarely got touches around the rim and was rendered mostly ineffective on the offensive end in that game. With Sidney now settling in and learning to become a factor on offense, how that matchup plays out in this one will go a long way in determining the outcome tonight.

Bama needs to either win the battle against State's 3-point shooters, or win the Green-Sidney battle. If we do both, we should be able to complete our sweep. If we do neither, Mississippi State will probably leave Tuscaloosa with a pivotal road win. If those battles are spilt or result in draws, it will probably come down to how many 3's we hit on the offensive end.

This is the first of a very tough stretch of games. Here's where we start finding out just how far this team has really come. Hope for the best.