Well, Dr. Jekyll showed up in a big way in the second half in Gainesville, huh? The Crimson Tide (15-8, 6-4 SEC) played arguably their best basketball of the season after the intermission on Saturday, drilling the previously-ranked Florida Gators by a score of 41-17 in the second half. It was a beautiful performance that invoked all of the Tide's strengths: stifling defense, running the floor, and attacking the glass. It is truly amazing how up-and-down this Tide team can be, and arguably no other game besides the previous one exemplifies this erratic play better than Alabama's first match-up with the Mississippi State Bulldogs (17-6, 5-5 SEC) in Tuscaloosa last month. In that meeting, Alabama dominated the first half of play in similar fashion to the way they dismantled Florida in the second half this past weekend. When halftime arrived, the Tide led the Bulldogs 41-22. However, State came roaring back to tie things up at 54 each before Alabama, led mostly by Braxton Key, answered by closing things out in the final few minutes.
The culprit in that almost catastrophic collapse was, as it always seems to be, poor shooting combined with ugly turnovers. That combination has hurt the Tide a number of times this season. Empty possessions leading to quick run-outs for the opposition are the easiest way to lose a basketball game, and Alabama has seen its share of rough patches regarding those two factors.
Regardless, things seem to be rolling along for Alabama, despite that ugly loss to Missouri last week. Bracket Matrix still has the Tide slotted as a 9-seed, and that honestly may be under-seeding them a bit. The Selection Committee loves teams that have played a tough strength of schedule (Alabama sits at #17) and have shown an ability to beat top-flight competition (Alabama has wins over projected 2-seed Auburn, 4-seed Oklahoma, and 5-seed Rhode Island), and they’ve been known to bump these kinds of teams up a seed line more than the “experts” project.
Alabama just needs to win 3-4 more games to book its ticket to the dance. That quest continues Tuesday night.
The Last Meeting
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, that 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.
Obviously, Collin Sexton being back makes for a huge change from the last meeting with Mississippi State. Regardless, production from the rest of the team has made-or-broken this team all season, so this remains a key component to a Tide victory. Check the box scores, games where Sexton is forced to score 20 or more don’t work out nearly as well for Alabama as games where he organically drops 18 or so. If Alabama can run the floor and attack the basket like they did against Florida the other day, the spread-out production will come with ease because that’s when Dazon Ingram, Avery Johnson Jr., Braxton Key, Herb Jones, and Donta Hall are most comfortable offensively.
Honestly, the three-point line may not be a factor at all tonight. Again, Mississippi State is a terrible jump-shooting team. And as just mentioned, Alabama will want to attack the rim. However, if the three-point line does end up being utilized in a positive fashion for either team, that could make the difference. The last thing Alabama needs is 20.4% three-point shooter Lamar Peters lighting the Tide up on three consecutive attempts from downtown like he did last time.
What to Watch For This Time
The second half of the previous meeting seemed to be a bit of a spark for the Bulldogs. Although they ended up falling short of the come-from-behind win, they’ve since won three of their last four, with the lone defeat coming in Lexington against Kentucky. They beat both Missouri and Georgia by double-digits in the past ten days in Starkville. The Bulldogs are peaking right now, and they are ready to make a legitimate run at the NCAA Tournament themselves. They, no doubt, want to avenge themselves for falling just short in Tuscaloosa a few weeks ago. Quinndary Weatherspoon has continued to lead the way for Mississippi State on the offensive end, but the reason for their current streak is that the other players near the top of the rotation have been able to help lighten his load.
Mississippi State has been salty on defense all season, if Q. Weatherspoon is getting help scoring from Peters, Aric Holman, Abdul Ado, and his brother, Nick, they become a very tough team to beat. Alabama will need to play defense the way they did in Gainesville on Saturday, but with more attention to help defense in the interior rather than on staying out on shooters. Fortunately, that’s the kind of defense Alabama’s long wings and bigs prefer to play. Avery Johnson has owned Ben Howland since both arrived in the SEC at their respective schools, and State’s inability to consistently hit jumpers is one of the major reasons why.
This is a big game for both schools. Mississippi State is trying to announce their presence as a legitimate bubble team, whereas Alabama is looking to solidify themselves enough to where they won’t have to worry about the bubble come March. With the gauntlet that is the SEC this season, every potential win is precious, especially if it comes on the road.
The game will tip-off at 6:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.