With a pleasantly surprising blowout win over the Georgia Bulldogs on Wednesday night, Alabama (12-7, 5-2 SEC) officially announced themselves as legitimate contenders for a double-bye in the SEC Tournament in March. The Tide have placed themselves in the upper echelon of the SEC standings, as only Kentucky (17-3, 7-1 SEC), South Carolina (16-4, 6-1 SEC), and Florida (15-5, 6-2 SEC) have better records, and only Arkansas (16-4, 5-3 SEC) is within a game of taking the Tide’s 4th place spot. Those four teams would all be in the NCAA Tournament if it started tomorrow. On top of that, the next two teams after Arkansas, Georgia (12-8, 4-4 SEC) and Mississippi State (13-6, 4-3 SEC) have both already suffered losses to the Tide.
With that being said, the rapidly improving Mississippi State Bulldogs have been playing some good basketball lately, and they are nowhere near as inexperienced as they were in the SEC opener, when ‘Bama went into Starkville and grabbed a 68-58 win. They are a very talented team, and it’s only a matter of time before they become a consistent presence at the top of the SEC standings.
Also, Alabama already has some bad memories of playing Ben Howland’s team at home, as State came into Tuscaloosa last February and stunned the Tide 67-61, just when the Tide had started appearing on Bracketology articles across the web. That loss not only immediately dropped Alabama out of projected brackets, it also began a tailspin that Avery Johnson’s team never really recovered from.
The Last Meeting
Three Keys to Victory
Rebounding. As with most young teams, Mississippi State has really struggled on the glass. Not that Alabama has been much better, but this is an area that Alabama needs to come out on top. Defense and rebounding travels, and while one would expect the Tide to play strong defense, it will be their ability (or lack thereof) to grab boards, especially of the offensive variety, that will make the difference in this slow-pace, ugly offensive game.
Shot Selection. Young teams can get frustrated easily, and when players get frustrated, they force bad shots. Alabama’s edge in experience should make a big difference in this game in that the Tide should be more patient and less willing to chunk up low-percentage shots.
Pressure. It may be hard to believe, but Alabama is the best team State has faced this season. The Tide are by far the best defensive team Ben Howland’s group has had to address, coming in at 33rd in the most recent Kenpom rankings. Both of these teams play at a slow pace, but it may be a good idea to try to speed the Bulldogs up and make them uncomfortable tonight. It can not be over-stated how inexperienced they are, and Alabama has an excellent opportunity to welcome a number of their players to major college basketball with some tough defense.
Check out this link to read the full Breakdown for the last meeting, and click here for Brent’s game recap.
Remember when one of the keys to ‘Bama basketball games used to be something along the lines of “don’t get destroyed on the glass”? Yeah, well that’s not much of a concern anymore. Avery Johnson’s greatest successes in his short Alabama tenure have come away from the hardwood, but there is no doubt that he has made some huge strides on the court as well. This improvement is best highlighted by how much better Alabama has been on the boards. The Tide have gone from being one of the worst teams in the SEC in rebounding to being arguably the best.
The first game against Mississippi State was a showcase of the Tide’s new-found rebounding dominance, as they out-rebounded the Bulldogs 43-21, which was the ultimate difference in what was an ugly defensive game. Alabama shot 44.3% from the field, including an infuriating 3/13 from downtown, while the Bullies one-upped the Tide in shooting incompetence, going 4/21 from beyond the arc and finishing with a dreadful 36.5% FG%.
What To Watch For This Time
Better shot selection would give Alabama a little bit more wiggle room in other areas this time around, meaning that they wouldn’t have to double Mississippi State in the rebounding margin again, which seems unsustainable. Alabama also turned the ball over more than the Bulldogs did in Starkville, and with the location now being in the Tide’s favor, one would think that category might flip as well.
But it should be understood that Mississippi State is really developing as a team. Even though it’s not even been a full month since the last meeting, this young team has gotten substantially better, and they will be looking to avenge that tough loss in the opener. Lamar Peters, in particular, has started to really assert himself at the point.
Alabama has a chance to really make something happen here in conference play. The Tide drew a favorable SEC schedule this year, and they’ve taken full advantage of it. Coming off of the heels of their best performance of the season, Alabama has a chance to further separate themselves from the middle of the league Saturday night. However, as the Tide learned last season, Mississippi State is more than capable of ruining things.
The game will tip-off at 5:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.