Alabama looks to pick-up the pieces following a heart-wrenchin....
Just playing! The Crimson Tide (15-8, 6-4 SEC) roll into Starkville looking to extend their winning streak to three games after taking care of business and breaking the curse that is Memorial Magic in Nashville this past Saturday. Hoodoo works in mysterious ways, folks.
Awaiting the Tide at ‘the Hump’ will be Ben Howland’s Mississippi State Bulldogs (16-7, 4-6 SEC), who will be attempting to avenge their 83-79 loss to the Tide a few weeks back in Tuscaloosa. While Alabama was taking out the trash of the SEC last week, State was going toe-to-toe with some of the best the SEC has to offer. In Year 4 of Howland’s tenure, everything seemed to be building up to this past week for the Bulldogs, when #19 LSU and #5 Kentucky both came to town. Unfortunately for State fans, the Bulldogs came away with a pair of hard-fought, heart-breaking losses. That’s not easy to bounce back from, but Howland’s veteran squad has no other choice when Alabama comes to town tonight, as State has fallen back to 4-6 in SEC play with only eight games left.
Now, they aren’t exactly in danger of falling out of the NCAA Tournament or anything (the bubble has been even weaker than usual this season), but this was supposed to be the year that State finally returned to the top of the conference as a legit contender. Anything less than at least 10-8 would have to considered a pretty significant disappointment. So, the Bulldogs’ urgency will be at 100%.
Speaking of contending, your Alabama Crimson Tide is now a game out of fourth place in the SEC. A top four finish, of course, would give Alabama a double-bye in the SEC Tournament and would put the team only a single win in Nashville away from their third straight appearance in the semifinals, an achievement only Kentucky could possibly match in 2019. We’ve been critical of Avery Johnson at times, but if he could pull that off, he’d join an exclusive club in Tuscaloosa.
The Last Meeting
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.
The first match-up in Tuscaloosa was a weird game. Mississippi State out-rebounded the Tide 43-39 and collected an inexcusable 19 offensive rebounds. However, they struggled to knock down any shots, including going 3/19 from three and 12/22 from the free throw line. On top of that, the Bulldogs let Alabama get to the rim at will. The Tide was even worse from downtown (1/15), but finished the game with a 49.2% FG% because State just let Donta Hall and company hang out on the rim.
It was an odd game that saw Alabama race out to a 41-29 halftime lead before nearly blowing it in the second half (something Avery really needs to address), despite State not shooting well at all.
What to Watch For This Time
I’d expect a much cleaner product tonight. Alabama does need to continue to attack the basket though, has Mississippi State has continued to struggle to protect the rim. Kentucky, LSU, and Ole Miss, State’s previous three opponents since the last meeting, all had a ton of success scoring inside. That may have to do with the increased minutes 2018 McDonald’s All-American Reggie Perry has seen since the meeting in Coleman Coliseum.
Perry, a 5-star signing in the 2018 class, hadn’t seen the court consistently through the first few months of the season. Howland elected to let Perry play the majority of the second half against Alabama, as the Bulldogs were attempting to find some offense to spark the second-half come-back, and it largely worked. Perry killed the Tide inside for the tune of 20 points and 7 rebounds. He’s continued to put up big numbers on the offensive end, but you have to wonder if the decreased minutes for Abdul Ado and his 7.9% BLK% hasn’t hurt State equally on the defensive side of things.
Alabama appears to be really settling into what Avery Johnson has been crafting for this team all season. Sure, the offense disappears at times and the team still turns the ball over too often, especially when trying to close out a game, but the Tide are playing with some real confidence now. With Kira Lewis continuing to display his smooth slashing style and Hall flushing down everything within a 5 foot vicinity of the basket, all it really takes is one of John Petty, Riley Norris, or Tevin Mack to get going from the perimeter and suddenly the Tide has a pretty formidable offensive attack.
This team has a chance to finish the season strong, something it was unable to do last year. Alabama lost six of their last eight regular season games after getting off to an identical 15-8 (6-4 SEC) start last season. The table is set for this now experienced group of guys to come together and finish things the way Alabama basketball should. Stealing a win in Starkville against a fellow (yes, fellow) NCAA Tournament team would be huge for this program.
The game will tip-off at 8:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.