As Alabama makes the short trip to Starkville, Mississippi Tuesday night, the wheels are really starting to fall off the wagon for coach Grant and company. Not only did Alabama suffer another tough defeat against LSU on Saturday, but the injuries are really starting to pile up. The Mississippi State Bulldogs (10-12, 4-6 SEC) are actually moving a bit in the inverse direction. After an atrocious non-conference performance, where they lost to the likes of Arkansas State, USC-Upstate, and McNeese State, the Bulldogs then started SEC play off at 0-3. However, they have won four of their last seven games, and the surprisingly-experienced roster has finally started to pay off for head coach Rick Ray, who may be the only coach in the league with a hotter seat than Anthony Grant right now.
The Starting Five
- PG I.J. Ready (8.8 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.3 SPG)
- SG Craig Sword (8.2 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.9 SPG)
- 3G Fred Thomas (10.7 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.9 SPG)
- PF Roquez Johnson (10.0 PG, 5.6 RPG, 0.9 SPG)
- C Gavin Ware (9.8 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 1.1 BPG)
The Bulldogs have a starting line-up completely made up of average-to-solid players. Each guy contributes, but none of them really stand out as difference-makers, especially on the offensive end. Ready is limited by his size (5'11), but he's the best passer on the team and he's been sensational from the free throw line (93.8% FT%). He's a decent shooter (41.6% FG%, 31.3% 3P%), but he isn't a reliable enough scorer from the field for State to depend on him. Defensively, taller guards can really give him problems, but seeing as it will be Justin Coleman running the point almost exclusively, that shouldn't make a huge difference. Don't be surprised if Levi Randolph gets some time running the point however, as it doesn't look like Ricky Tarrant or Retin Obasohan will be dressing out for this one either. Sword is a guy the Bulldogs were really hoping was going to blossom into a playmaker. He's played better in recent weeks, which is a major reason why State has displayed a better brand of basketball, but his overall numbers have been very disappointing for fans in Starkville. Sword has struggled to shoot the ball (39.1% FG%, 35.7% 3P%, 68.0% FT%), and it has worn on his overall game. Scoring is supposed to be his thing, as he's pretty average at just about everything else. Sword's also had some issues forcing things, as he averages over two turnovers a game. Thomas has been a virtual carbon-copy of Sword thus far this season, save his superior ability to rebound. Shooting has been a bit of an experience for Thomas as well (37.2% FG%, 34.5% 3P%, 79.5% FT%), and yet somehow he's the leading scorer. Both Sword and Thomas are decent defenders.
In the front court, Mississippi State is able to utilize two true low post players, which has increasingly become a rarity in today's game. Johnson, like most of State's roster, is a solid contributor, but not much more than that. He's pretty close to being as average as they come, really. A 53.5% shooter, he can score inside, but not from anywhere else. When he gets to the line he's a 65.7% shooter, and he rebounds at a redundantly-average clip. Ware's ability to rebound and defend (95.7 DRtg) have been crucial to Mississippi State's success (whenever they have had it, that is), as he can do both pretty well. He's another decent scorer (50.7% FG%), though he gets a lot of his best looks off of missed shots, and not necessarily because they are feeding him the rock.
- G Trivante Bloodman (4.0 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 2.2 APG 0.8 SPG)
- G Travis Daniels (6.4 PPG, 4.1 RPG)
- F Demetrius Houston (2.4 PPG, 2.3 RPG)
- F Fallou Ndoye (2.4 PPG, 1.6 RPG)
- F Oliver Black (1.8 PPG, 2.5 RPG)
Senior Trivante Bloodman takes most of the reps off of the bench in the back court, as Daniels is a bit of a tweener at 6'8. Bloodman does a good job running the offense and dishing out looks when he comes into the game, and he has been a key guy off of the bench. He's not a huge scoring threat (43.9% FG%, 10.0% 3P%, 64.4% FT%), but he knows the system both offensively and defensively. Daniels is an interesting player because of his size-skill combination, but he just doesn't have enough of the skill part down yet. A 40.3% shooter, Daniels uses his length to get open looks on the wing, but he just doesn't convert enough of them. He's also terrible from the free throw line (58.6%). The rest of the bench is made up of a trio of tall freshmen forwards. All three of them get just over ten minutes of playing time a game. They come in, hit the glass, play some defense, and provide Johnson and Ware with some rest.
What To Watch For
- Unfortunately Poor Offense. By now every Alabama fan that doesn't live under a rock could pass a thorough examination of "Grantsketball". The sad thing is that Mississippi State plays even worse offense at an even slower pace. Remember the Missouri game last week? Yeah, it will be just like that.
- Injuries. Tarrant has already been ruled out for the game Thursday night, Obasohan is doubtful, and Michael Kessens will be a game time decision. Even if Kessens can go, it's likely that his ankle injury will limit him a decent amount. Freshman Devin Mitchell got some playing time on Saturday, and he looked incredibly raw and uncomfortable while he was in the game. Hopefully he has gotten those jitters out of him, because Alabama will need a solid ten minutes from him Tuesday.
Three Keys to Victory
- Force the Extra Pass. Mississippi State is one of the worst passing and ball-handling teams in the entire country. Just take another glance at the assists per game numbers listed above. They average 8.4 APG, bad enough for 346th in the country. They also are 297th in the country in turnovers committed. There is no hyperbole when discussing how bad Mississippi State's offense is. It's honestly amazing that this team has won four out of ten SEC games so far. Alabama's defense is still a stifling bunch that forces the opponent to really work to get an open look. The Tide needs to continue that trend in Starkville, because if they can, the Bulldogs won't be scoring many points.
- Limit Fouls. Alabama will likely be down two or three significant contributors, the last thing the Tide need is for Coleman to grab three early fouls (like he did against LSU) or Jimmie Taylor to continue his fouling trend. Alabama will already be depending on guys to step up and play in positions they aren't used to. Early foul trouble could spell disaster for Alabama.
- Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper. The two senior leaders have really brought it for Alabama this year. Neither one of them has been an all-SEC type of player or anything, but without these two guys, Anthony Grant's probably already looking for work. With things really falling apart for the Tide, and with the injury list racking up names, Alabama needs these two guys, the best two players on the court Tuesday night, to put the team on their backs and lead them to victory. Otherwise, Alabama's NCAA Tournament chances will be officially 0%.
Recent events have not been to kind to the Alabama faithful, and the foundation that Anthony Grant has built is really starting to cave from underneath him. Alabama still has a chance at grabbing an at-large spot in the NCAA Tournament, but it will require a level of play that they have yet to show this season. With eight games left, Alabama probably needs to win seven of them. If not, Bill Battle and company may be forced to take action this offseason.
The game will tip-off at 8:00 PM CST and will be televised by the SEC Network.