What a remarkable month this has been for Alabama basketball. Fresh off of its third straight blow-out win over a fellow conference foe, the Crimson Tide (12-3, 7-0 SEC, NET: 10, Kenpom: 11) will look to run it’s undefeated conference record up to 8-0, as neighboring rival, Mississippi State (9-6, 4-3 SEC, NET: 96, Kenpom: 79), comes to town Saturday. After an absurd night where the Tide broke its own SEC record with 24 made three-pointers in a 105-75 smack-down of LSU (that wasn’t even as close as the score indicated), Alabama returns home to close out the first half of conference play with a pair of match-ups with solid, yet unspectacular, opponents.
As mentioned, Ben Howland’s Bulldogs will be first up for the Tide. They’ve been up and down a bit this year, and their last three games perfectly encapsulate that: upset home loss to a weak A&M team, huge bounce-back win against NCAA Tournament hopeful Florida, capped by a deflating loss to the rival Rebels from Ole Miss on their home court. It’s definitely not a team that Alabama wants to take lightly, but one that a true Final Four contender takes care of business against at home.
Yep, I said it. Final Four contender. Because that is exactly what Alabama’s ceiling clearly is at this point. Bracket Matrix, who I will reference quite heavily as we approach March, posts an aggregated bracket of 70+ Bracketology “experts” and their most recent projected brackets in order to determine a consensus idea of where teams currently stand, which it updates most days. They currently project Alabama to be a 3-seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, which would be the highest seed Alabama has been awarded since 2002, when the Tide earned a 2-seed.
That also happens to be the last time the Tide won the SEC regular season title. With the evisceration of LSU the other night, Alabama has now become the overwhelming favorite to win the conference for the first time in nearly 20 years. The Bayou Bengals and Tennessee Volunteers are really the only other realistic contenders, and we already know how those games played out in their respective home venues.
So, with everything going Alabama’s way right now, and with the national media starting to catch on to what Nate Oats is doing in Tuscaloosa, the only question that remains this season is this: can the Tide ignore the rat poison and keep on winning?
POINT 6’3 Iverson Molinar (17.4 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.3 SPG)
GUARD 6’6 D.J. Stewart (17.4 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 2.5 APG, 0.8 SPG)
WING 6’6 Jalen Johnson (7.1 PPG, 2.3 RPG)
POST 6’10 Tolu Smith (13.5 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 1.1 APG, 1.2 BPG)
POST 6’11 Abdul Ado (5.7 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 0.8 APG, 2.0 BPG)
Two things really stand out when you watch Mississippi State play this season. Number one, the offense only goes as far as the two guards, Molinar and Stewart, take it. Two, the Bulldogs have got to be one of the few teams in America that still play two legitimate post players at the same time. Nobody does that anymore. Howland is an old school coach at this point, very much still employing a 2000’s style of basketball. State plays intentionally slow (315th in the country, to be exact), tries to make it a half-court game, and wants to win games by playing inside-out and being more physical than their opponents.
They are also heavy on isolation, which brings me back to Molinar and Stewart. Without these two, I don’t know where this team would be right now. As the top scoring duo in the SEC, Molinar has been especially potent (49.1%/51.4%/77.5%; 22.5% AST%), but Stewart certainly isn’t far behind (44.1%/38.1%/70.7%). Molinar is actually the SEC leader in 3P%, while Stewart is the leader in three-pointers made. I’m sure John Petty and company would like to challenge them on that tonight.
In the front-court, Western Kentucky transfer, Tolu Smith, leads the way, but he is joined by fifth year senior Abdul Ado, who somehow still has eligibility left. Neither is a threat at all to stretch the floor, as they are very much traditional post players, so Alabama just needs to either deny the entry pass or make sure to get positioning in the low block. They have been great around the basket, both on defense (Smith: 4.5% BLK%; Ado: 8.5% BLK%, 94.0 DRtg) and on the glass (Smith: 16.2% REB%; Ado: 13.9% REB%). Jalen Johnson rounds out the starting unit, and while he hasn’t been the most impactful player, his 40.7% 3P% is definitely something Alabama needs to be prepared for.
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’1 Deivon Smith (4.0 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.4 APG, 0.9 SPG)
WING 6’7 Cameron Matthews (2.7 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.0 SPG)
POST 6’9 Javian Davis (4.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG)
POST 7’0 Quinton Post (3.2 PPG, 1.6 RPG)
On the bench, State is short on depth, but big on size. Blue-chip prospect and true freshman, Devion Smith serves as the sixth man for the Bulldogs, and while he’s struggled to shoot the ball thus far (29.2%/26.1%70.6%), he’s been great operating as a back-up point guard (20.2% AST%). Javian Davis should obviously be a familiar name, as the Alabama transfer spent last season playing for the Crimson Tide. Unfortunately for Javian, his scoring has been pretty rough this year (37.5%/14.3%/41.7%), but he’s been an asset in the paint for his rebounding (17.1% REB%) and defense (96.3 DRtg). Quinton Post certainly has an apt last name, as the seven-footer looms large in the low block (12.8% REB%, 5.5% BLK%).
Three Keys to Victory
- Hold Up in the Post. The one area Mississippi State will have an obvious advantage is in the post. With four true bigs of at least 6’9 height, the Bulldogs are going to want to make this a slow-paced, bruising battle in the paint. With Jordan Bruner obviously still out, Alabama will need some good minutes on defense and on the boards from the likes of Alex Reese, James Rojas, and Juwan Gary. Unsurprisingly, State is one of the best rebounding teams in college basketball (43rd in the country at 39.7 RPG), but they are specifically good at earning second chance points via offensive rebounds (25th in the nation at 13.1 ORPG). We all know Alabama has had its issues on the defensive glass, so this is going to be a major key in this game. Plus, you know Javian Davis is going to be extra motivated in this one.
- Dictate the Pace. Mississippi State is also quite exceptional at swatting shots (24th in the country at 4.9 BPG). What’s one of the best ways to avoid getting stuffed at the rim? Don’t let anyone get between you and the basket. If Alabama can control the tempo of this game and get out and running on the offensive end, State’s bigs aren’t going to be able to keep up. And with only three true guards in the rotation, the Bulldogs don’t really have much of a choice but to keep their wings and posts out there. State will want to muck this game up and make it a drag, so that they can make it a physical battle in the post. The Tide can’t let them do that. If Nate Oats’ squad can play the way he wants them too, Bully simply won’t be able to keep pace.
- Limit Molinar and Stewart. As I mentioned earlier, these two make the Bulldogs’ offense go. If Alabama’s guards (and Herb, if necessary) can shut these two down and force others to beat them, it’ll be a long day for Mississippi State. That’s exactly what Ole Miss did to State the other night, as the duo combined for just 10/26 shooting, and the Rebels held them to a putrid 46 points. Get the ball out of their hands.
Alabama has been the hottest team in college basketball for the month of January, and the national media is starting to notice. With the 18th-ranked Tide soaring up the top 25 polls and projected NCAA Tournament seed lines, everyone is starting to jump on the Tide Hoops bandwagon. Alabama needs to tune out all of the hype and remain humble and hungry for more success. We all saw how poorly this exact team played back towards the beginning of the year, so we know how far south things could turn.
The good news is that the team should understand this as well. The Tide simply isn’t going to keep shooting at the absurd level that it has in recent weeks; however, if Alabama can continue playing with the same type of effort and focus that the team has displayed over that same span, everything will take care of itself. The difficult part of the schedule is behind the Tide now, as Alabama will almost certainly be favored in every game from here on out, with a few exceptions. Can the Tide go from surprising upstart to bonafide power? Avoiding hangovers and trap games like the one tonight will go a long way in deciding that.
The game tips-off at 5:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.