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Bama Basketball Breakdown: Mississippi State

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Alright, Alabama, let’s try this again

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Well, that match-up with Arkansas went just swimmingly on Wednesday, didn’t it?

Anyway, there’s no use in getting wrapped up in that ref-controlled foul-fest at this point; just have to take it on the chin and move on. The Crimson Tide (18-6, 13-2 SEC, NET: 9, Kenpom: 10) didn’t play well enough to win on the road against a red-hot Arkansas team, anyway. There were a few good takeaways from that game though - Jordan Bruner looked much healthier than he did in his first game back against Vanderbilt, and Juwan Gary played like his usual self in his return to the floor.

Looking ahead, the SEC announced a list of make-up games on Thursday to be played next weekend:

Saturday, March 6

Alabama at Georgia | CBS | 2:00 pm ET

LSU at Missouri

Mississippi State at Auburn

Texas A&M at Arkansas

South Carolina at Kentucky

Vanderbilt at Ole Miss

Sunday, March 7

Florida at Tennessee

So, we officially have a finalized schedule set in stone to conclude the 2021 season. Every match-up on the list is a game that was originally scheduled but had to be postponed, with the exception of the Tide and Bulldogs in Athens - both of whom lost games due to Texas A&M’s apparent COVID infestation this month.

The big takeaway for Alabama is this - with only one game being made-up for each team in the conference, a regular season split title is no longer an option. The Tide is up 2.5 games on Arkansas with three to play. Alabama will finish with a full 18 game season, but the Hogs will come up one shy of that number (assuming A&M is going to opt back into this season by next week). So, any Alabama win or Arkansas loss will give the Tide an outright SEC title. The Razorbacks host LSU at 1:00 PM CST on ESPN2 today, so we’ll know before the Tide tips off whether a win is necessary or not.

Speaking of which, the Mississippi State Bulldogs (13-11, 7-8 SEC, NET: 81, Kenpom: 66) welcome Alabama to the Hump tonight. Ben Howland’s club has been the definition of solid, yet, unspectacular this season, but their size already gave the Tide fits in Tuscaloosa earlier this year. Can Alabama come out refocused after the tough loss on Wednesday and wrap up the 2021 SEC Championship?

From Last Time

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.

Check out this link to read the full Breakdown for the last meeting

As I mentioned, Mississippi State gave Alabama all it could handle the last time these two met. The Bulldogs are a very solid team, and that showed in the box score: 44.3% FG%, 15/17 from the free throw line, out-rebounded the Tide 36-32, about even in turnovers, etc. Alabama eventually pulled away in an 81-73 final, but it required a few clutch shots down the stretch from John Petty and Jaden Shackelford to put the game away. The Tide’s 14/34 line from the perimeter was the primary driver for the victory, allowing Nate Oats’ team to survive despite Alabama doing a poor job of limiting Iverson Molinar and D.J. Stewart, who combined for 46 points, 15 of which came from the free throw line.

So, How Will Tonight Play Out?

The biggest boost for the Tide tonight, compared to the first meeting, will be Bruner’s availability. His presence in the interior on defense and on the glass can’t be overstated. The Bulldogs are a big team, as they play five different true post players who all go 6’9 or bigger: Abdul Ado, Tolu Smith, Javian Davis, Quinton Post, and, most recently, Derek Fountain. Fountain is a true freshman who has seen a substantial jump in playing time, in large part because of his ability to stretch the floor (45.5% 3P%), which significantly helps with spacing in a half-court offense that’s heavy on isolation and PnR. Alabama will need to be ready for this adjustment from last game.

Other than that, the keys mostly remain the same: hold up on the glass and in the defensive post (which the Tide did pretty well last meeting), and force Molinar and Stewart to defer to other options (which they did not). The Tide did push the tempo a good bit at times in the last match-up, but State dictated its pace a bit too often when the Dogs controlled the basketball. It’s tough to push the ball when the opponent is as big as Mississippi State is, since they gobble up the rebounds, but that’s why the effort on the glass is so important. No matter how the Tide plays it, the three-point shooting needs to improve from where it has been the last two games. Just far too many open shots being missed from Alabama’s side.

The Crimson Tide is a healthy five-point favorite for a reason: Nate Oats’ squad is clearly the superior team. But, Mississippi State is very solid, and very big. They definitely present a match-up challenge if they are able to control the pace of the game and Alabama can’t knock down open looks. After the poor showing in Fayetteville, I’d expect the Tide to come out focused and ready to make the plays necessary to win this game. If not, the pressure to clinch the regular season SEC Title could start to mount.

Can the Tide take advantage of the cushion it has built in the standings, and win the SEC Championship tonight? The game tips-off at 5:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.