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Bama welcomes Bulldogs for bubble battle

Dee Bost keys the Bulldog attack.
Dee Bost keys the Bulldog attack.

The Crimson Tide basketball team will host the Mississippi State Bulldogs tonight in what has shaped up to be an extremely crucial game for both teams as they each look to lock up bids to the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Tip-off for this massive showdown is set for 5:00 pm CST, with the game being televised nationally on ESPN.

Entering this game, both teams are in a similar, precarious position: in the NCAA Tournament field if the season ended today, but so low in the pecking order of at-large teams that a poor finish from here on could drive them all the way out of the field. For that reason, it is vital for each team to get a win in what is being hyped by the national media as an important battle between two "bubble" teams.

Interestingly enough, both teams have taken similar paths to get to this point. Both have been ranked in the top 20 for much of the season, but have been shaky recently and now find themselves battling the bubble rather than the top 15. The difference has been the trajectory of the path. Alabama has gone through three distinct rocky patches that threatened to derail a promising season, the most recent of course being the suspension saga. However the Tide has now seemingly put the suspension ordeal behind them and is actually coming off back-to-back crucial wins in the past week. The Bulldogs meanwhile are currently mired in their own slump, having lost their last four games. Just two weeks ago they were ranked in the top 25 and looked destined for a high NCAA Tournament seed, but after losing back-to-back overtime games to Georgia and LSU, and then falling on the road to lowly Auburn, the Bulldogs are in search of a major win to right the ship.

Don't let the recent slide fool you, however. Mississippi State is still easily one of the most talented teams in the SEC, and in their last game on Tuesday night, they outplayed #1 Kentucky for much of the game, leading by double figures at the half before falling in the end. State is an extremely dangerous team that is capable of playing with anyone, and with the Bulldogs more desperate for a win than even Alabama, don't expect anything less than a big-time battle as both teams seek to lock up their place in March Madness.

Mississippi State's star player has been 6'11" junior Arnett Moultrie, an NBA-ready forward who has an unbelievable combination of length, quickness, and skill. He averages a double-double with 16.4 points and 10.8 rebounds per game in his first season with the Bulldogs after transferring from UTEP. Moultrie is a complete game-changer on both ends with his huge wingspan and ability. He's on the short list for SEC Player of the Year and is undoubtedly one of the best post players in the country. It is unclear who will be tasked with defending him, but a big concern has to be his ability to draw fouls, which could be a huge factor if the Tide's own star forward, JaMychal Green, draws the defensive assignment. More than likely Grant will try to use some combination of Nick Jacobs, Carl Engstrom, or possibly even Moussa Gueye on him. At any rate, stopping Moultrie on the defensive end and finding ways to work around him on the offensive end will be huge keys. Moultrie absolutely dominated the Tide in the two teams' previous meeting, blowing up for 24 points and 13 rebounds as Mississippi State got the narrow home victory.

After Moultrie, the big name for Mississippi State basketball has to be senior point guard Dee Bost. Bost has been one of the more underrated players in college basketball for the last couple years. He doesn't quite have the unique skills necessary for an early departure for the NBA, but short of that, he has everything you could possibly want in a college point guard. He just trails Moultrie for the team scoring lead with 16.0 points/game. He is also one of the top assist men in the SEC with 5.1 assists each game. Bost is a talented, experienced and well-rounded player who can penetrate, distribute, and shoot at a high level. Alabama's defense did a pretty good job on him, but he almost single-handedly won the previous meeting between the two teams by going off in the final minutes hitting his last three trey attempts.

Moultrie isn't the only newcomer who has vastly improved this team. True freshman Rodney Hood, a lanky 6'8" wing player, has lived up to his billing as a 5-star stud recruit. He is third on the team in scoring with 11.0 points/game. Hood is the rare wing player who, at 6'8", still has the ability to shoot at a high rate from the 3-point arc and also put the ball on the floor and drive to the hole. In fact, he averages 1.5 made 3-pointers each game while still shooting over 38% from downtown, and averages 2.0 assists each game, better than some point guards. To top it all off, he also uses his 6'8" frame on the boards, where he averages 4.9 rebounds/game. Hood is a key piece of this team, and is sure to be a star in the SEC if he sticks around long enough. Fortunately for Alabama, Hood is listed as doubtful for this game due to an injury suffered during the Kentucky game on Tuesday. That means both teams will likely be without their most prized freshman recruits, as the Tide's Trevor Lacey is also listed as doubtful.

The other big name on this Mississippi State team is the infamous Renardo Sidney. The 6'10", 270-pound junior big man has been a large presence for this program, both literally and figuratively, for a couple of years now. He still isn't in top-notch shape, but even playing only 23 minutes each game, Sidney's been able to use his massive body to tally over 10 points and 5 rebounds each outing. He continues to show flashes of why he was a 5-star recruit, but he still doesn't quite have the consistency to be an All-SEC player. Last season he was dominated in both games against Alabama by JaMychal Green, but with Moultrie now in the paint alongside him, there is less pressure on him. Make no mistake, for all his shortcomings, Sidney is still 6'10" and 270 with good feet and hands for his size. He'll make some plays and will cause Bama trouble inside if the already overmatched Bama interior defenders like Jacobs and Engstrom key on Moultrie.

The Bulldogs have another veteran interior player who provides nice depth and rotates in with Sidney in 6'9" junior forward Wendell Lewis, an Alabama native. Lewis isn't flashy but he's a very solid backup post player who averages 3.9 points and 4.1 rebounds each game while playing almost 22 minutes/game.

With Moultrie, Sidney, and Lewis each splitting time at the two post positions, and Bost and Hood both playing over 34 minutes/game on the perimeter, a trio of guards fill in the remaining spots on the floor. 6'3" senior guard Brian Bryant usually starts at the off-guard spot, averaging 6.6 points each game. He isn't a great shooter, but he is a good defender and a very good rebounder for a guard. He also seemingly finds plenty of ways to score in the paint. Another 6'3" guard, sophomore Jalen Steele, splits time with him. Steele is a very good shooter, averaging 8.0 points each game, the majority coming from the 1.9 treys he hits each and every game. He is the team's best shooter and the Tide defense must account for him. If Hood indeed misses the game, look for both Bryant and Steele to both play the majority of the game. 5'11" freshman guard Deville Smith is the eighth and final player in the primary rotation. He plays mostly as a point guard, and has been very effective in utilizing his quickness on both ends of the court.

The key for Alabama offensively is to be aggressive. Mississippi State's defense boasts two very interesting stats that both indicate a "soft" approach to defense: they rarely foul (only 2 out of 345 Division I teams foul at a lower rate) and they rarely force turnovers (only 6 out of 345 Division I teams force turnovers at a lower rate). Further, they are below average nationally in shot blocking, even though they have incredible size and talent in the post. All told, they rank 10th in the SEC in overall defensive efficiency. All of these stats indicate that if Alabama attacks the rim consistently and forces the issue on offense, the Mississippi State defense won't exactly just step up and impose its will. It is important for Alabama to do just that and not settle for jumpers late in the shot clock, because Mississippi State's one strength on that end is rebounding: they rank 1st in the SEC in defensive rebounding rate, rarely giving up offensive boards.

Alabama will have a bigger challenge defensively. Mississippi State ranks 4th in the SEC and 37th nationally in overall offensive efficiency. The biggest key for Alabama has to be containing Moultrie. He absolutely ate Alabama alive in the previous meeting, and the Tide really doesn't have anyone who can match up with him. Nick Jacobs is probably not quick enough, and playing JaMychal Green on him is a huge risk given his fouling propensity. This might actually be just the game for Engstrom and Gueye to provide some valuable defensive minutes. Outside of Moultrie, the Alabama defense probably has to be most worried about the Mississippi State shooters, namely Bost and Steele. Bama is typically very good at defending the perimeter, and that will have to remain a priority. When Bost and the Bulldog guards score at a high rate, they are a very difficult team to beat.

This should be a great matchup of two very talented teams with a lot on the line. Conference title implications aside, it doesn't really get any bigger in the regular season than two rivals going head-to-head in late February with coveted tickets to the Big Dance very likely at stake. Hope for the best.