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.
- 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)
- 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)
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.