The Crimson Tide basketball team continued its early domination of the Western division with a 75-61 win over the Mississippi State Bulldogs, thoroughly outplaying its nearby neighbors and basketball rivals for the second time this season. Bama's win over the Bulldogs, coupled with Arkansas's last-second loss to Georgia, further strengthened the Tide's grip atop the SEC West standings. The Tide also maintained its half-game lead over Florida in the race for the SEC Championship.
Last night's game was an all-around good performance from the Tide. I said before the game that we'd need to take our level of play up a notch or two to beat this talented Mississippi State team, and that's exactly what we did. Bama came out with great focus and intensity right at the start, taking it right to the Bulldogs and building up a big lead before State even knew what had hit them. Bama had a few lapses in focus, particularly midway through each half, but some uncharacteristic big 3's and some great ball movement on offense kept the Bulldogs from ever seriously threatening to win the game.
When discussing individual performers, there's no question that such a discussion must begin with young freshman point guard Trevor Releford after this one. Releford was beyond outstanding, posting by far his best all-around performance of his young career. His stat line of 16 points, 8 assists and 4 steals only tells part of the story. Perhaps most impressively of all, he shut down MSU's star veteran point guard Dee Bost--a player I said beforehand might be the SEC's top point guard right now--for large stretches of the game on the defensive end. On offense, he sliced up the MSU defense at will, scoring six buckets on drives to the rim and dishing out assist after assist when getting himself into the lane. Two of those assists were highlight-reel worthy and came at clutch times: his drive and dish to for a dunk just as the shot clock was about to expire, and his no-look kick out to a wide open as the first half was expiring. Like any good floor general, when Releford elevates his game he makes the whole offense better. That was the case last night, and if he plays at anything close to that level the rest of the way, this team will only keep getting better.
Releford was so good that Tony Mitchell--our team's second-leading scorer who set a career-high in points last night--is getting second-billing in this article. Mitchell scored 23 points to further boost what is an already impressive scoring average on the season. Really, it was your typical night for Mitchell, with him mostly using his explosive athleticism to score around the rim while making big-time plays on defense (3 blocks, 2 steals) and on the boards (7 rebounds). However, what made this a career scoring night for him was his uncharacteristic 2-for-2 performance from the arc. When Mitchell is able to actually knock down his open looks from deep like he did last night, we can get a glimpse of how unstoppable he could be with that element of his game clicking consistently.
The other member of Alabama's "big 3" players, JaMychal Green, had a cold shooting night but still emerged from his battle with Renardo Sidney as the clear winner. I talked about how important that matchup would be before the game, and in the first 80 seconds, Green essentially ended the battle before it even began, knocking Sidney out of the game for the remainder of the first half by drawing two quick fouls. Sidney's absence opened up the lane for Bama's offense in the first half and was a big key in Bama building up a 12-point halftime lead. Despite his cold shooting from his usually high-percentage 15-20 foot range, Green still managed to have a very solid game--a double-double, in fact--with 15 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 game-changing blocks. The fact that he put up numbers that impressive against a very talented Mississippi State frontline on a night in which he missed a lot of shots shows just how far he's come from a maturity and mental toughness standpoint. There might be one or two better post players in the SEC. Maybe. Green is at the very least on the short list right now for top big man in the SEC.
One final player who certainly deserves mentioning is senior guard Charvez Davis, who had another one of those shooting nights that reminds you just how deadly he can be when he heats up. He was 6-for-9 from deep (although one of those was just inside the arc), good for 17 points. One trey came at the buzzer in the first half, while another came on a fade-away as the shot clock expired. Like he was against Kentucky, Charvez was hot, and when Charvez is hot, this team becomes significantly more dangerous on the offensive side. He needs to have a some more games like that against the elite teams in the league in order for us to have a good chance of knocking off those teams.
Bama is now very much in control of its own destiny in the West, and barring a collapse with more bad losses, a bye in the SEC tournament and a potential NIT bid are starting to look like very strong possibilities. The next two games, however, will determine what this team has to play for over the last few weeks of SEC play. The Tide's next two will come on the road against two of the SEC's top four teams, two teams that are both likely to end the season in the Dance. Those games (Saturday at Tennessee and next Thursday at Vanderbilt) will test this team like no two-game stretch has all season.
There would be no shame whatsoever in losing both. If that were to happen, we'd still be guaranteed to be first in the West, and we'd still be in pretty good shape to make the NIT. Losing both, however, would likely dash Bama's new-found dreams of winning the SEC Championship and possibly somehow sneaking onto the NCAA bubble. Winning just one of the two--either one, as both have similar credentials--would keep those dreams alive, at least a little while longer, and that should probably be the goal heading into these games. After all, even the nation's truly elite teams wouldn't go into these two games on the road expecting a sweep.
Last night's win will keep Bama rolling for now, and greatly increased the Tide's chances for an SEC Tournament bye and an NIT bid. We'll find out very soon, though, just how far this team has really come--and just how high Bama fans can dare to dream this season.