After a somewhat disappointing 7-5 start to the season in non-conference play, the Alabama Crimson Tide now turn their attention to the meat of the schedule: SEC play. The NCAA Tournament seems like an incredible long-shot for the Tide in 2017, but that certainly doesn’t mean that this team has nothing to play for. The NIT seems likely with a winning record in conference, and this team has a lot of areas they need to develop and improve in before this program can be successful moving forward. It’s disappointing that Alabama won’t be able to take advantage of what is a pretty light conference schedule (the Tide draw home-and-aways this year with a number of the lesser teams in the SEC) to rack up wins and make a run at a tournament berth, but at least there are a number of opportunities to make some noise in the SEC standings.
One of those lesser SEC foes happens to be the first one on the schedule: the Mississippi State Bulldogs (9-3). Ben Howland has an incredibly young roster in his second season in Starkville, and because of this, he decided it would be best to build their confidence early with a weak non-conference slate. The Bulldogs played one of the worst non-conference schedules in all of college basketball, as they competed against only one major conference opponent all fall, Oregon State, who is currently making a run at being one of the worst major conference basketball teams in recent memory. So the 9-3 record is a bit misleading, and it contains losses to East Tennessee State, Central Florida, and Lehigh.
However, this is a really talented team. They are just incredibly raw. Howland will have Mississippi State back to their old early-2000’s selves eventually (they brought in six 4-stars in 2016 and currently have another pair lined up for 2017), but they certainly won’t contend for much this season.
- PG 5’11 I.J. Ready (10.7 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 5.1 APG, 1.8 SPG)
- OG 6’4 Quinndary Weatherspoon (19.1 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.3 APG, 2.0 SPG)
- 3G 6’4 Tyson Carter (10.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.1 APG, 1.1 SPG)
- WF 6’7 Mario Kegler (9.4 PPG, 5.5 RPG. 0.7 APG, 0.8 SPG)
- C 6’10 Aric Holman (10.0 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 0.7 APG, 0.9 SPG, 2.2 BPG)
With two true freshmen (Carter, Kegler) and two true sophomores (Weatherspoon, Holman), point guard and lone senior Ready has been critical to this team’s success. The undisputed leader on the court, Ready has done an excellent job of putting his team in positions to succeed, while keeping his turnovers down (1.9 TOPG) and still scoring at a 47.1% clip. He’s not much of a shooter, but he loves to drive and dish, and his 79.3% FT% shows that he is capable of hurting teams by getting to the line himself.
Weatherspoon is the go-to guy on this offense though. A 49.2% scorer, his three-point shooting (44.7%) and free throw percentage (81.5%) are both second on the team. Besides a brief injury scare where it originally seemed as if he would miss a bunch of time (he ended up only missing two games), this has been a great follow-up season to Weatherspoon’s surprisingly strong freshman campaign a year ago. A 94.4 DRtg also shows his ability to defend as well. He’s got a really good shot at becoming a 1st-Team All-SEC selection this year.
Carter and Kegler have both shown promise and inconsistency in their inaugural college seasons. Carter is only shooting 38.8% from the field overall, but he is a 39.3% three-point shooter and has made a team-high 88.5% of his free throw attempts. Carter doesn’t do much else to help the team out though, with a RB% of only 5.6% and an A% of 7.2%, but that can be attributed to his youth. Kegler is a 41.0% scorer, but doesn’t have the same jump-shot ability. Both Carter (98.6 DRtg) and Kegler (97.3 DRtg) are solid defenders, and Kegler adds an 11.4% RB% to aid on the glass.
Finally, Holman rounds out the starting five, and he has done quite an admirable job against admittedly weak competition. With a RB% of 15.2% and a B% of 9.6%, he adds some serious value in the post for a team that needs it.
- G 6’0 Lamar Peters (9.3 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 2.5 APG)
- G 6’4 Eli Wright (2.8 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 0.5 APG, 0.5 SPG)
- C 6’10 Schnider Herard (3.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG)
- C 6’9 E.J. Datcher (1.1 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 0.8 BPG)
Peters, the point guard of the future, may be the most exciting of the 2016 class that Howland brought in. He’s not only a great passer and ball-handler (23.3 A%, 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio), he can also shoot (45.1% FG% and team-best 47.9% 3P%). Wright has struggled the most out of the young guards, but he is talented as well. Herard has done a solid job spelling Holman in the post this season, including his team-high 17.1% RB%, and Datcher adds size and depth to the front court as well. All four of these guys are true freshmen.
What to Watch For
- Injuries. Alabama will once again be without wing forward Nick King, who is still recovering from a bizarre lung infection. It’s possible that senior guard Corban Collins will return to the line-up tonight, but it’s not been announced yet whether he will give it a go.
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.
Barring some unforeseen run in conference play, Alabama enters the SEC portion of the schedule with nearly no chance at an NCAA Tournament bid. However, the conference slate is pretty favorable, and Alabama has a chance to make some noise within the SEC. That begins tonight with their match-up in Starkville with an incredibly young Bulldog team. Grab a win tonight, and Alabama will return to Tuscaloosa with a pretty decent chance at getting to 2-0 to start conference play.
The game will tip-off at 7:30 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.