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Bama Basketball Breakdown: Mississippi State

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Avery Johnson's group looks to split their road trip with a win in Starkville

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last few seasons, there were very few certainties within the SEC. The few that could be counted on were that Kentucky would be the league favorite, Alabama would be frustratingly mediocre, and Mississippi State (9-11, 2-6 SEC) would be terrible. After a couple of years of dealing with the status quo, both Alabama and Mississippi State decided to change things up a bit. The Crimson Tide hired Avery Johnson, who's infectiously-delightful personality and ability to immediately upgrade the talent level in Tuscaloosa is old news now to anyone who bleeds crimson and white. But the Bulldogs also made a similar hire, as they went out and landed a head coach with multiple Final Four appearances on his resume, Ben Howland.

Howland lacks the same charisma that Avery displays, but he certainly doesn't lack for recruiting prowess. After landing one of the top prospects in the country last off-season in Malik Newman, he's currently got the 7th-ranked 2016 class in the country, ahead of even Alabama's great haul. On top of that, State's 9-11 record is a bit misleading, as the Bulldogs have continued to improve and have played one of the tougher SEC slates in the conference thus far. This is going to be another tough battle for Alabama.

The Roster

Starting Line-Up

  • PG 5'11 I.J. Ready (10.2 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 4.4 APG, 1.1 SPG)
  • OG 6'3 Craig Sword (12.7 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.4 SPG, 1.2 BPG)
  • 3G 6'4 Quinndary Weatherspoon (10.8 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.4 SPG)
  • SG 6'3 Malik Newman (13.7 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 2.2 APG)
  • PF 6'9 Gavin Ware (15.7 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.9 SPG, 1.3 BPG)
Mississippi State has quite the juxtaposition of experience levels in their starting line-up. For a program that's in the middle of rebuilding, they have a large number of seniors on the roster, including two (Sword and Ware) that start. They also have two true freshmen starting in Newman and Weatherspoon. The other obvious note that jumps off the page is the lack of size. State utilizes a four guard look in their starting line-up, none of who are taller than 6'4.

Ready is a typical true point guard. He takes care of the ball (4.4 APG to only 1.7 TOPG), runs the offense, scores when he needs to (52.4% FG%), and knocks down his free throws (87.8%). His size prevents him from being able to do much on the glass or on the defensive end of the court. Sword is much less efficient (46.2% FG%, 18.2% 3P%, 67.0% FT%, more turnovers than assists this season), but much more explosive offensively. He's really good at driving the ball to the basket. He also averages over a steal and a block per game.

Between the two true freshmen, Newman is the one with all of the talent and potential in the world, but Weatherspoon has been every bit his equal in terms of production this season. Newman was thought to be a transformative one-and-done player for Howland in Year One, but he's had his fair share of struggles. Regardless, his talent will be better than anyone else's on the court Tuesday night. He's one of the best three-point shooters in the SEC (42.3%), and his overall field goal percentage (41.1%) and free throw percentage (72.2%) are both solid as well. He's had his issues on defense (111.7 DRtg), as most true freshmen do. Weatherspoon has been a younger, more efficient version of Sword this season, as he too has utilized his unique ability to drive to punish opposing defenses (47.8% FG%, 54.2% 2P%). He also does damage when he gets to the line (81.3%), but he hasn't been the best three-point shooter (34.5%). He's also been one of the better defenders on a pretty poor defensive team, and his 9.8% RB% leads all guards.

Finally, there's Ware, the senior leader of the group. There might not be another player in the SEC more valuable to his team than Ware is to Mississippi State. Not only is he one of the few post players on the roster, he's also by far the best offensive player. He leads the SEC in FG% (62.1%) and has an ORtg of 130.5, a pretty ridiculous number. His 14.6% RB% is also tops on the team. Without Ware in the middle, State would be having a really hard time running a four guard line-up.

The Bench
  • G 6'5 Fred Thomas (4.7 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.0 APG)
  • F 6'8 Travis Daniels (6.3 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 0.9 APG, 0.6 BPG)
  • F 6'9 Johnny Zappardo (3.6 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 0.6 SPG)
  • F 6'10 Aric Holman (1.1 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 0.6 BPG)
Continuing the theme of the weird juxtaposition of seniors and freshmen, the Bulldogs utilize three seniors and one true frosh (Holman) off of the bench. Thomas has been a solid role player in the back-court for years, and that hasn't changed this season. His 63.6% 2P% is pretty strong, so Alabama will not want to let him get any open looks from inside of the perimeter. Daniels is really a guard, but his height has forced him to try and play around the basket a bit more this season. His 9.4% RB% is solid, and he's also got admirable scoring numbers (48.3% FG%, 39.4% 3P%, 72.7% FT%). Zappardo and Holman represent the only other post players on the roster, and neither really brings a ton to the table. Zappardo has long been a bench warmer until the lack of depth necessitated his presence in the rotation. Holman is a young player who needs more time to develop.

What to Watch For

  • Injuries. As mentioned previously, Gavin Ware is a major piece to this Mississippi State team. He missed the Missouri game this past weekend with a concussion, and if he can't go Tuesday night, Alabama's chances of a victory are greatly increased. Without him, State would have to rely on only two true post players, neither of which come close to measuring up to Ware's production in any area. But Ware's not the only player who's status is in doubt for Tuesday night's game. Justin Coleman has been announced as "day-to-day" following a turf toe injury that he suffered in the game against South Carolina. As of this writing, both are listed as questionable for the game. This will definitely be something to keep an eye on.
  • Road Woes. Alabama is still in search of their first conference road victory. Playing in Starkville might be the Tide's best opportunity to find one. There are a number of reasons for Alabama's road struggles, but foul calls have been brutal. As has been a major problem in college basketball for a while now, the home team seems to get a bevy of the borderline calls, which certainly reared it's ugly head in Columbia on Saturday. Just don't be surprised if State heads to the line at a much greater degree than Alabama.

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Stopping Dribble Penetration. Mississippi State has actually been a pretty darn good offensive team. The reason why is because they do a great job of spacing the floor, running isolation, and getting to the rim. Well that, and the fact that Ware has been so good in the post. The Bulldogs shoot 54.4% from inside the arc, 22nd-best in the country. If Alabama wants to come away with a "W" on Tuesday night, they have to force State to pass the ball for open looks. On-ball defense will be critical in this game.
  2. Free Throws. The Bulldogs are surprisingly one of the best teams in the SEC in FT%, sitting at 73.9%, which also places them in the top 40 in the country. However,  they don't go to the line very often, especially for a team that relies on driving to the basket so much. They will have the home court advantage in this one, so it should be expected that they will get plenty of opportunities to get theirs from the charity stripe. Alabama has to do a better job of making their free throws. If State has a large advantage in this area, it's tough to see Alabama coming out of Starkville victorious.
  3. Winning on the Glass. With the exception of Ware, Mississippi State has been terrible at rebounding. They rank outside of the top 300 in RPG, and are close to the absolute bottom of Division 1 in total defensive rebounds. Alabama hasn't been great in this area either, but they have been much better than the Bulldogs. If Alabama can get somewhere between +5 to +7 total rebounds, with a number of big offensive ones, the Tide should be able to win this game.
Alabama and Mississippi State are both trying to overcome tough early schedules in SEC play. It's not been an easy road, but the winner of this game will be able to climb up out of the cellar in the SEC and make a run at finishing with a decent seed in the SEC Tournament. The Bulldogs are better than they are given credit for, but they are still a seriously flawed team with a lack of a front-court outside of Ware and bad overall defense. This is a game Alabama needs to win.

The game will tip at what has become Alabama's usual 8:00 PM CST slot on the SEC Network.