After an unsuccessful venture to Waco, Texas this past weekend, the Crimson Tide (12-7, 3-3 SEC) jump back into SEC play as the 22nd-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs (15-4, 3-3 SEC) come to Tuscaloosa. Yes, for the third conference game in a row, Alabama will be going up against an opponent ranked in the AP Top 25. That’s just life in the SEC in basketball now, too. At 12-7, most pundits still believe that the Tide is an NCAA Tournament team. If the tournament started this week, it is likely that the Tide would be involved.
However, no matter how tough the schedule may be, there comes a point where a team simply amasses too many losses to ignore. Alabama certainly isn’t at that point yet, but with a still brutal remaining schedule, the Tide is starting to get to the point where each loss gets them even closer to an NIT appearance. In the next five games, Alabama plays State twice, Auburn and Vanderbilt on the road, and Georgia in Coleman Coliseum. Considering the Tide’s history in Nashville and Lee County, and how strong of a team Mississippi State is, it won’t be easy to go 3-2 in that stretch. Anything less than that likely knocks the Tide out of the projected tournament field with only seven games left to play.
In other words, this is a pivotal stretch of the season for Avery Johnson’s club. Tonight’s game at home is particularly important. Tough road losses in Waco don’t really hurt your resume, and Alabama would likely take a net positive if they can offset that loss in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge with a home victory tonight.
Again, it won’t be easy. Mississippi State has a talented, experienced group. Head coach Ben Howland has been building this team with the 2019 season in mind, and thus far, it’s paid off. They are very much alive for a top four finish and a double-bye in the SEC Tournament in March.
Of course, so is Alabama. The Tide can be an enigma of a team, but the last time Alabama took the floor in Coleman Coliseum they ran State’s neighbor’s, the Ole Miss Rebels, out of the gym. Avery Johnson certainly would love to see a repeat performance this Tuesday.
POINT 6’0 Lamar Peters (13.0 PPG, 5.9 APG, 1.7 RPG, 1.3 SPG)
GUARD 6’2 Nick Weatherspoon (10.3 PPG, 2.3 APG, 2.5 RPG, 1.2 SPG)
GUARD 6’4 Quinndary Weatherspoon (17.3 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.3 SPG)
POST 6’10 Aric Holman (11.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.1 SPG, 2.3 BPG)
POST 6’11 Abdul Ado (5.3 PPG 4.9 RPG, 1.8 BPG)
If the above names seem familiar, it’s because they should. The younger Weatherspoon, Nick, is the only lower-classmen in the starting line-up, and even he played a ton his freshman season. The Bulldogs have a very traditional look: three guards and a pair of post players. You don’t see that in basketball much anymore, but it works well for Ben Howland’s squad.
The biggest reason for State’s improvement this season has been Peters’ development into a trustworthy point guard. The potential was always there, but now he’s dishing out assists at a much higher rate than before (36.3 AST%) while simultaneously improving the range in his jumper (42.6%/40.7%/65.8%).
The Weatherspoons, meanwhile, continue to do their thing. After multiple Second Team All-SEC finishes, Quinndary seems like a lock to finish up his career in Starkville on the First Team. His 48.9%/34.9%/85.6% shooting line is as strong as ever, as he’s able to extend defenses with his jumper while attacking the basket as well as anyone in the conference. But it’s his well-rounded play (15.9% AST%, 10.1% REB%, 99.7 DRtg) that separates him from other pure scorers in the league. His younger brother, Nick, ain’t to shabby either. He would fit well into the latter range of guys referenced above, as he’s had a great season shooting the basketball this year (48.3%/44.4%/75.6%).
In the post, Holman has been a beast on both ends of the court. He can score from anywhere (47.8%/42.1%/70.5%), rebounds the ball well (13.7% REB%), dishes the ball pretty well for a big guy (10.1% AST%), and is the definition of a rim protector (9.1% BLK%, 95.1 DRtg). He’s a match-up nightmare. Ado adds size in the paint, but he’s a much more limited player than Holman.
GUARD 6’4 Tyson Carter (9.7 PPG 1.8 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.4 SPG)
WING 6’7 Robert Woodard (4.0 PPG, 3.2 RPG)
WING 6’8 KeyShawn Feazell (0.9 PPG, 1.4 RPG)
POST 6’10 Reggie Perry (7.3 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 0.8 BPG)
The Bulldogs, much like the rival Rebels across the state, don’t spread out minutes much in their rotation. The difference being that State chooses to play it this way, whereas Ole Miss kind of has to. Carter and Perry both play large roles off of the bench, though. Carter provides a nice burst of offense when he hits the floor (46.4%/36.5%/84.6%) and Perry has been quite strong as a defensive presence (98.7 DRtg) and on the glass (team-best 17.8% REB%). Woodard offers good size as well. Feazell has missed the previous couple of games with an injury, but he was only averaging 6.4 MPG anyway.
Three Keys to Victory
- Rebounding. Mississippi State is a very balanced, solid team. There isn’t much that they don’t do well. Rebounding has been a bit of an issue for them, though. A lot of that is by design, as Howland prefers his guards to get back on defense and get moving on offense after missed shots. Alabama has been great on the glass all season, but they got embarrassed in this area this past Saturday against a much smaller Baylor team. The Bears went all-in on crashing the glass, and it ultimately ended up costing the Tide, as Baylor finished the game with 10 more shot attempts than Alabama. The Tide need to get back to hitting the glass hard and controlling the pace of the game.
- Knock Down Jumpers. The Bulldogs are such a solid team on both ends of the court. They used to struggle quite a bit with jump-shots, but that’s no longer the case, as they rank 4th in the SEC in both FG% and 3P%. They play great defense as well, specifically in their ability to protect the basket. The Tide are going to have to make jumpers in this game. State will make them on their end.
- Free Throws. A tightly contested game against a well-rounded, solid team almost always comes down to free throws. Remember the Tennessee game? Mississippi State is essentially the lite version of Rick Barnes’ Volunteers. Alabama has more explosive and athletic players on the roster, but if they leave a bunch of points at the charity stripe, it won’t matter how well they play.
This is a critical game for Alabama. While a loss to Mississippi State certainly doesn’t hurt in a vacuum, when you glance at what’s ahead for the Tide, and how many tallies are already in the ‘L’ column, a home loss would be a tough pill to swallow tonight. With trips to Auburn, Nashville, Starkville, Columbia, College Station, and Fayetteville still on the horizon, Alabama really needs to protect home court as much as possible. A 7-5 finish to conference play likely gets the Tide in the NCAA Tournament regardless of what happens in the SEC Tourney. A 6-6 split would put the Tide right on the cut-line. Anything less than that, and Avery Johnson will have to do some serious work in the conference tournament for the second year in a row.
The game will tip-off at 7:30 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.