As the clock hit the five minute mark left remaining in the game, the Crimson Tide inbounded the ball trailing the Mississippi State Bulldogs (11-14, 4-9 SEC) 64-57 on the road in Starkville. With the home crowd rocking, it seemed very possible that Alabama was going to fall to 2-7 in conference play, a record that would have left little hope for a post-season appearance of any kind. Instead, Avery Johnson's team rallied around senior leader Retin Obasohan and came back to tie the game and send it into overtime, where the enigmatic Justin Coleman would dominate and give Alabama an 82-80 win. Since the rally in Starkvegas, the Crimson Tide haven't lost yet. That game truly created the belief in the Crimson Tide players that they could achieve greater than they had ever before, and they haven't looked back. After three straight hard-fought, close wins over NCAA Tournament competition, the Tide now welcome the Bulldogs to Tuscaloosa.
It's been an incredible run for Alabama, who now finds themselves on the right side of the bubble on pretty much every bracketologist's projections. Obasohan has gone from senior leader to transcendental scorer, and the rest of the roster has fallen into their own niches. Jimmie Taylor has become a force defensively in the middle, and his back-up Donta Hall has quickly followed suit. Shannon Hale continues to stretch defenses and create great spacing for the Tide offense with his versatility. Riley Norris is either knocking down big shots, hustling for loose balls, or banging on the boards. Arthur Edwards' ability to knock down spot-up shots has given Alabama a great option on the wing. Coleman has focused more on using his quickness and great passing to attack defenses off of the bench, while also providing the 4th-highest free throw percentage in the country at 91.4% to help ice games late. Michael Kessens has greatly improved his physical presence, allowing Alabama to go big across the board. Brandon Austin has even come along nicely, though he has some developing left to do before he becomes a significant contributor.
The Alabama Crimson Tide finally look like a real basketball team, utilizing their strengths and minimizing their weaknesses in a way that neither of the prior two coaching regimes ever bothered to do. If Alabama finishes the season strong and makes the NCAA Tournament, there is no legitimate argument against Avery Johnson winning the SEC Coach of the Year award.
The Last Meeting
Three Keys to Victory
The first match-up in Starkville was a decently played game, as both teams executed at a pretty high level. The defining stat in the game was the difference between Alabama's ability to make jump shots and their ability to force Mississippi State to take (and miss) a bunch of their own. The Bulldogs dominated around the glass, but they shot a horrid 3/18 from the three-point line. In fact, State made only seven total shots from outside of the paint, a truly remarkable accomplishment for the Alabama defense. Meanwhile, the Tide offense hit 11/29 from downtown, and 46.6% overall.
Free throws and rebounds were essentially a push in the last meeting. State shot a better percentage from the charity stripe (Bulldogs: 68.8%, Alabama 63.0%), but the Tide got to the line eleven more times; thus allowing Alabama the chance to outscore State from the line overall. The Crimson Tide out-rebounded the Bulldogs 40-39.
What to Watch For This Time
Without question, the major adjustment Alabama will have to make will be getting better defensive play in the post. Gavin Ware destroyed the Tide in the paint in the first game. Luckily, as mentioned earlier in the article, both Taylor and Hall have grown into defensive forces down low. Alabama did a great job of stopping dribble penetration and forcing Mississippi State's guards to beat them with jump shots in the previous match-up, but they will also need to deny entry into the paint. Ware cannot eat up the Tide inside again.
Better free throw shooting will also be key for Alabama, as Wednesday night's huge win over LSU would suggest. The Tide went 15/18 from the stripe the other night, a tremendous improvement in efficiency in that area. Now, Obasohan and Coleman made every one of those 15 free ones, but the Tide needed all of them, and that alone reveals how crucial it is that Alabama make their free throws count. With the game being in Tuscaloosa, the officials will likely allow Alabama plenty of opportunities to get some points from the line.
The biggest difference between this game and the last one is that Hale will be able to go this time, after sitting out of the match-up in Starkville do to injury. Hale's ability to knock down perimeter shots makes him very valuable to the Alabama offense, because it creates great spacing for the team. If Retin and Coleman are able to get some space, both of them will be able to slice their way through State's defense, which hasn't been great defending opposing guards.
This is a must-win game for Alabama, simply because the Tide can't afford any bad losses at this juncture. The Crimson Tide have gone on an almost miraculous run to put themselves into pretty much everyone's projected bracket, but they can not give the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee any reason to doubt their inclusion. The Tide has been red-hot; can they keep it rolling?
The game will tip at 1:30 PM CST and will be televised by the SEC Network.