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‘Bama Basketball Breakdown: SEC Tournament - Mississippi State

If the Crimson Tide wants to win its first SEC Tournament title since 1991, it’ll have to first defeat its nearest rival for a third time this season

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

A year ago today, I wrote a piece that just about ripped my heart out, as I knew at the time what was inevitably going to happen following the suspension of the NBA season after Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID test: March Madness was going to be cancelled. For avid college hoops enthusiasts like myself, it was akin to hearing from your parents at a wee age that Christmas wasn’t going to happen this year. Twelve months later, we are unfortunately still dealing with this public health crisis. However, thanks to the hard work and discipline of everyone involved, March Madness will not be cancelled this year. College basketball will go on.

That’s especially fantastic news for the regular season SEC Champ and top-seeded Alabama Crimson Tide (21-6, 16-2 SEC, NET: 8, Kenpom: 8), which is currently experiencing its best season in nearly 20 years. SEC Coach of the Year, Nate Oats, has done a remarkable job turning this program around in less than two calendar years, as he has surpassed the expectations of even the most fervent Tide Hoops supporters. His next goal will be cutting down the nets in Nashville, which would be the Tide’s first SEC Tournament Championship since 1991, when Wimp Sanders was still manning the sideline.

Additionally, Alabama has the chance to achieve something that has not been accomplished much at all outside of the Bluegrass State: winning both the regular season and conference tournament titles in the same year. In fact, if you exclude Kentucky and Florida, no other SEC team has pulled off the double-dip since the Tide last did it in 1987 (Wimp, yet again). Furthermore, outside of those three, the only other school in the SEC that has ever achieved this goal is Tennessee, who did it a few times in the 1930s and 1940s.

Very rare company, indeed. But first, before the Tide can even think about cutting down those nets, they have to make sure they take care of business on Friday by besting their neighboring rivals for a third time this season.

Brunch with the Bulldogs

In a time slot that’s become annoyingly familiar for Alabama fans, the Tide will open up the third day of SEC Tournament play with an 11:00 AM CST tip against the Mississippi State Bulldogs (15-13, 8-10, NET: 78, Kenpom: 68). Ben Howland’s team overcame a massive Kentucky comeback today to survive 74-73 against the ‘Cats, setting up the third meeting of the season with the Tide.

As Tide Hoops fans know, neither of those wins came easy for Alabama this year. State more than held its own in Tuscaloosa, outrebounding the Tide, forcing 13 steals, and shooting 15/17 from the line in a 81-73 Crimson Tide win. Their terrific duo of guards (which honestly makes them a more difficult match-up than Kentucky would have been, notwithstanding Nashville voodoo), D.J. Stewart and Iverson Molinar, dropped 46 points on Alabama’s (at times) lenient perimeter defenders.

In Starkville, Alabama clinched the SEC regular season title, but only after eeking out an ugly 64-59 victory where the Tide absolutely allowed State to control the flow of the game. It certainly didn’t help that the team was throwing up bricks all night (32.3% from the field, 7/28 from three), but the Tide dug deep and found a way to win on the road with defense, as championship teams do.

Three Keys to Advancing

  1. Start out Fast. Alabama has been showing up late to these 11:00 AM games all season. Even in last Saturday’s 1:00 PM start against a bad Georgia defense, Alabama was sloppy with the basketball, giving away turnovers like it was a bakery. The poor first half shooting has really forced the Tide to pick itself up on the defensive end in order to hang around in these early games, and when combined with the pace the team plays at, it’s cost them late as the legs start to give out a bit. Alabama has only lost three games in 2021, and two of them were 11:00 AM tips. The Tide has to come out ready to go on the offensive end early in this game.
  2. Control the Pace and Open up the Offense. You have to give Ben Howland’s team some serious credit against Alabama this year - they have done a great job of mucking the game up to benefit their physical style of play. Alabama has assisted them quite a bit by missing so many shots, which allows the Bulldogs to clean things up on the glass and take control of the tempo. Mississippi State is one of the biggest teams in the country - Abdul Ado, Tolu Smith, Javian Davis, Quinton Post, and Derek Fountain are all 6’9 or bigger post players that average double-digit minutes per game. The Tide hasn’t done enough to make that an advantage for itself this season. There needs to be more off-ball movement than we have seen previously. Make these big guys work. Let’s get some ghost screens and some PnR action to create mismatches. I want Ado at the top of the key trying to stay in front of Jahvon Quinerly. Let’s make Smith or Fountain chase shooters over screens. Alabama needs to be more creative with its sets than it has been in the previous meetings.
  3. Stop Dribble-Drive Penetration. The one thing I’ve never liked about Ben Howland’s teams is how overly-reliant they are on isolation basketball on the offensive end. However, when you have guards who can consistently create like Molinar and Stewart can, you can get away with it. Additionally, the size that the Bulldogs employ is often utilized to “bury” SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Herbert Jones. Oats likes to have Herb play a “free safety” type of role in the interior, where he can help clean up as an eraser. But, if State is consistently getting into the paint with dribble-penetration, Herb committing to the slide gives the Bulldogs too much of an advantage around the basket. Even if the initial shot doesn’t go down, State’s bigs have entirely too much leeway for offensive boards and easy put-backs. Alabama’s guards are going to be the key to this game. Herb, Jordan Bruner, Juwan Gary, and the like have to be able to hold up with the bigs on the interior, but that won’t be possible if the guards aren’t doing their jobs defensively. Stop the dribble-drive and force jump-shots.

This is not going to be an easy match-up, but hey, it’s the SEC Tournament, it’s not supposed to be. Mississippi State is uniquely built to give Nate Oats’ style of play all kinds of headaches. However, where the Bulldogs have certain advantages, so does the Tide. Again, guard play is going to be the deciding factor tomorrow. If Quinerly, Jaden Shackelford, John Petty, and Josh Primo can knock down their shots, take advantage of mismatches, and hold up defensively, Alabama should win this game, and maybe convincingly so. However, if the Tide doesn’t get more creative on offense, allows State to control the tempo, and puts too much pressure on the interior defenders, the Bulldogs can absolutely win this game.

The Tide’s NCAA Tournament seeding would likely be completely unaffected by a loss, but that’s not the focus here. Alabama, despite not winning since the aforementioned 1991 SEC Tournament, is actually still second in the conference in tournament titles. A win on Sunday in Nashville would only further legitimize the return of the Tide to its rightful spot on the top tier of the SEC, below only Kentucky (who will never be caught). But that starts tomorrow morning against the Bulldogs. It’s March now gentlemen, time to go be legends.