What a win for the Crimson Tide (12-6, 4-2 SEC) the other night. Knocking off the lone remaining undefeated SEC team in conference play to jump back into title contention itself would have made it a special night. That it also ended #17 Auburn’s 14-game winning streak, without Collin Sexton even playing, made it so much sweeter. Avery Johnson has won some big games in his three seasons here, but none larger than that victory on Wednesday. Alabama is now officially back on track. At 4-2 in conference play, the Tide is tied for 3rd with Kentucky, only a game behind the first place Florida Gators. Alabama has also found itself back in nearly every bracket expert’s projected NCAA Tournament field. The importance of that win can not be overstated.
However, that game is in the past now. As big of a win as it was, it will mean nothing if Alabama doesn’t keep improving as a team. The remaining schedule is brutal, and there truly isn’t another day off until the season ends. The next team up for the Tide is the neighboring Mississippi State Bulldogs (14-4, 2-3 SEC). State, much like many of the rebuilding teams in the conference, has a very talented, but young group. Third year head coach Ben Howland looks like he has the Bulldogs well on the way to winning ~20 games for the first time since 2012, Rick Stansbury’s last season in Starkville. While it may be true that they are one of the few teams in the conference not on the NCAA Tournament radar at the moment, they are very much capable of making a run at it themselves. Alabama can’t afford to rest on its laurels Saturday night.
- POINT 6’4 Quinndary Weatherspoon (14.6 PPG, 4.2 APG, 5.6 RPG, 1.4 SPG)
- GUARD 6’2 Nick Weatherspoon (10.5 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.1 SPG)
- GUARD 6’4 Tyson Carter (9.8 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 1.7 APG, 0.7 SPG)
- POST 6’10 Aric Holman (12.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 0.7 APG, 1.3 PPG)
- POST 6’11 Abdul Ado (7.1 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 2.2 BPG)
One simply can’t begin a discussion about Mississippi State basketball this season without starting with the Weatherspoons. Quinndary is one of the most underrated players in college basketball. One of the first blue-chip recruits to commit to Howland at Mississippi State, Quinndary has been an all-around stud for the Bulldogs since nearly day one. He can score (50.8%/32.8%/73.9%), rebound (10.1% REB%), play salty defense (91.3 DRtg), and now, he’s become a fantastic distributor of the basketball (26.9% AST%). The guy demands the ball in his hands, and he’s earned it. Seriously, watch this guy be one of the few 2nd-round NBA Draft picks that becomes a regular in an NBA team’s rotation one day. It’s a crime how underrated he is.
His little brother, Nick, is a true freshman on the team this season. Also a blue-chip recruit, Nick’s play is very similar to Quinndary’s when he made his debut two seasons ago. He’s basically a smaller, rawer version of Q (44.3%/30.0%,67.7%, 14.7% AST%, 95.2 DRtg). While Nick is a prototypical point guard, Quinndary’s been such an important catalyst he’s pretty much become the point player on the team. Joining the Weatherspoon’s in the back-court is another former consensus 4-star in Carter. Carter’s not had the effect he would have like to had so far in his sophomore season, as he’s struggled to shoot the ball consistently (43.2%/30.7%) and hasn’t been able to make up for it in other areas. But he’s still a really talented kid, and he’s been money from the free throw line (85.7% FT%).
In the post, State’s got a couple of big bodies that can really bang down low. Both Holman and freshman Ado are scoring at strong rates (Holman: 61.8% FG%, Ado: 64.5%), but Holman can also stretch the defense with his 52.3% 3P%, which is good enough for 2nd in the SEC. He’s not afraid to let it fly, so Braxton Key and company will need to extend the defense out on him, especially from either corner (the good news is he’s about the only one the Tide will really need to worry about in this regard; more on that later). Both are excellent defenders as well, but Ado is straight-up special on the defensive end (Holman: 89.6 DRtg, Ado: 84.1). They are both very good on the glass as well (Holman: 17.6% REB%, Ado: 16.1%). The bottom line is this will be a much different match-up in the post than the previous one. Donta Hall’s availability could be key.
- GUARD 6’0 Lamar Peters (7.4 PPG, 3.3 APG, 2.3 RPG, 1.3 SPG)
- GUARD 6’4 Eli Wright (3.9 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1.2 APG)
- WING 6’6 Xavian Stapleton (6.4 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 0.6 APG, 0.9 SPG)
- POST 6’8 KeyShawn Feazell (2.3 PPG, 2.0 RPG)
- POST 6’9 E.J. Datcher (3.5 PPG, 2.1 RPG)
State’s bench is full of talent as well. Peters, Wright, and Stapleton were all pretty highly rated recruits. The issue has been that they’ve just not been very consistent on the offensive end of the court. Peters is averaging 3.3 APG on a 25.7% AST%, but he’s also turning the ball over 2.5 times a game. Wright has decently strong rebounding and assist numbers (9.4% REB%, 10.6% AST%), and Stapleton’s slashing ability provides State with their only true scoring wing. But none of them have been scoring consistently at all (Peters: 32.0%/18.6%/59.3%; Wright: 34.3%/17.4%/53.8%; Stapleton: 36.8%/28.6%/77.8%). They all have talent, and any one of them can put up baskets at any time. But they’ve struggled to do so with any remote consistency this season, and it’s really hurt the Bulldogs at times.
Feazell and Datcher are solid, young post players. Datcher is scoring at a 69.0% clip and shooting 88.9% from the line. He probably needs more playing time, honestly. Both of these guys can hold their own when either Holman or Ado need a rest. They are both strong defensively (Feazell: 91.7 DRtg; Datcher: 93.1), so there isn’t much drop-off on that side of the court when either or both Feazell and Datcher come off the bench.
Three Keys to Victory
- Production Without Sexton. The Tide's leading scorer is currently a game-time decision with his abdominal injury, but whether he plays or not, Alabama clearly needs other guys to be productive scoring the basketball. It's no coincidence that Alabama is playing its best basketball of the season in a 3-game stretch where Sexton has either been ineffective or unavailable. The rest of the team has stopped standing around watching Sexton and started playing with some assertiveness. Dazon Ingram has been fantastic at getting the ball to the rim and getting to the line. Herb Jones looked like a future star point forward handling the rock and running the pick-and-roll with the Tide's bigs against Auburn. John Petty has been red-hot from down-town at home. Galin Smith and Alex Reece have gotten involved. Braxton Key is coming around. That all needs to continue. If Sexton gets back into his groove while everyone else continues to play like they have, the sky is the limit for this team.
- The Three-Point Line. If Petty could shoot 8/13 from the three-point line again tonight, they would be real nice. Mississippi State has been fantastic at preventing their opponent's from scoring in the paint area. Holman and Ado, as mentioned, have been stout on the defensive end. Hall should play tonight, but it may be in a limited role again. If that is the case, Alabama will have a tough time finding consistent scoring in the low-post. Alabama will need to knock down some deep jumpers to get the crowd going. A three-pointer on any given possession would be huge for Alabama because, well....
- Force Contested Jumpers. Mississippi State is a terrible shooting team. They are shooting 30.2% from the three-point line, 335th in the country. On the flip-side, they are 20th in the country at 56.5% from inside of the arc. Clearly, they want to attack the basket. The Tide need to force State to take jump-shots, especially if it isn't Quinndary or Holman taking them.
This will be a huge game for Alabama. How the Tide comes out playing tonight following their huge home win over Auburn their last time out will tell us a lot about this team. The SEC is too deep this season to come out flat in any game. Mississippi State is a perfect example of that. While they are 2-3 in SEC play, they are a very talented team that's played tough defense all season. Alabama will have to fight to extend their win streak to four games.
The game tips-off at 7:30 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.