I think it’s time for a bit of a reset. After a pathetic display in Columbia, Missouri last week and a depressing home loss on Tuesday that put the Alabama Crimson Tide (11-5, 2-2 SEC; NET: 23; Kenpom: 17) essentially three games back in the conference standings, this team has a lot to prove. Those back-to-back December wins over top-ten teams in Gonzaga and Houston feel like forever ago at this point.
The first truth that ‘Bama fans need to accept is this - Alabama isn’t repeating as regular season SEC champs this year. The Tide would need to win ~12 of it’s last 14 conference games in order to pull that off, and Alabama has arguably the toughest conference slate in the league - a pair of games with #12 LSU and #18 Kentucky, a return trip to #4 Auburn, and a pair of matchups with a big, solid Mississippi State Bulldogs (11-4, 2-1 SEC; NET: 47; Kenpom: 41) team. Additionally, Auburn has, by far, the easiest remaining slate of the main contenders - a single match-up a piece with Kentucky, Alabama, and Tennessee, the former two both at home.
The second fact is that Alabama doesn’t deserve to win the SEC this year - not playing like they have been. Terrible defense, weak on the interior, streaky shooting, loose with the basketball, etc. This isn’t last year’s squad. The Tide is desperately missing Herbert Jones and John Petty, and Josh Primo’s early exit has cost Alabama dearly (not to mention ACL injuries to Nimari Burnett and James Rojas).
With all of that being said, this is still one of the most talented teams Alabama has put on the court this century. The ceiling for these guys is still a Final Four run. But, they’ve got to work on a lot of areas of the game to get to that point. That starts today, with a tough road trip to Starkville, Mississippi, where Ben Howland has one of his best teams playing really sound basketball right now.
POINT 6’3 Iverson Molinar (17.5 PPG, 4.5 APG, 3.4 RPG, 101.0 DRtg)
GUARD 6’1 Shakeel Moore (10.5 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 2.1 APG, 94.5 DRtg)
WING 6’7 D.J. Jeffries (10.7 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.9 APG, 100.1 DRtg)
WING 6’7 Cameron Matthews (4.4 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.9 APG, 90.4 DRtg)
POST 6’10 Garrison Brooks (10.8 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 99.7 DRtg)
This is a very experienced squad that Howland has this season - the only lower-classman is Moore, who transferred over after playing significant minutes for NC State last season. Iverson Molinar is the focal point of the offense (47.6%/29.5%/88.7%; 27.4% AST%; 26.1% USG%) - the Bulldogs typically go as he goes. Molinar is working on an All-SEC type of season, and while his perimeter shooting hasn’t been great, he’s more than capable of lighting it up at any minute. The aforementioned Moore is the true shooter (43.7%/37.7%/73.7%), so while Molinar will be constantly attacking, Moore will be looking for space to let it fly.
The front-court is where Alabama will have the most issues, however. Mississippi State is BIG. All three of these guys rebound the basketball with authority (Jeffries: 11.0% REB%; Matthews: 13.5% REB%; Brooks: 14.0% REB%). Additionally, all of them can step out and knock down treys (Jefferies: 32.7%; Matthews: 50.0%; Brooks: 34.3%). The only true weaknesses for these three are the lack of a true post game offensively - none of them are going to put you into a spin cycle in the low block - and they are pretty average defensively. That noise you just heard was Charles Bediako exhaling.
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’2 Rocket Watts (4.4 PPG, 0.5 APG, 105.6 DRtg)
WING 6’7 Andersson Garcia (3.8 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.3 APG, 88.7 DRtg)
POST 6’9 Derek Fountain (2.5 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 91.1 DRtg)
POST 6’9 Javian Davis (5.8 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 100.9 DRtg)
POST 6’10 Tolu Smith (14.2 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 94.0 DRtg)
Did I mention Mississippi State’s size? A trio of bigs off of the bench provide the Bulldogs with the deepest rotation of post players in college basketball. We all know former Alabama player, Javian Davis. And honestly, despite his lack of skill (51.0% FG%; 63.3% FT%; 17.2% TO%), his presence in the interior would be really nice right about now (14.3% REB%). Derek Fountain can handle the rock a bit (9.7% AST%) and knock down jumpers (37.0%/25.0%/71.4%), as well as, of course, rebound (13.7% REB%). Tolu Smith is really more of a starter, but he’s only played in five games all season. He’s available today though, and he’s probably State’s second best player (65.9% FG%; 17.6% REB%), so expect to see him quite a bit in the paint.
Three Keys to Victory
- Three Pointers. Last season, Alabama had a bit of a stigmatism about them that they lived and died by the three, which wasn’t really true with Herb Jones and company defending at a high level and the likes of Jahvon Quinerly getting to the rim consistently. This year though? Alabama shot a combined 36/82 - 43.9% - from downtown against Miami, Gonzaga, and Houston. The Tide shot a combined 16/55 - 29.1% - in their last two games. Alabama beat the former three teams by 42 total points, and lost to Missouri and Auburn by 10 total. Three point percentage has been the leading indicator of how Alabama performs this season, by a lot. That will be even more important today against a team with Mississippi State’s size, as the Bulldogs aren’t going to give up many easy looks inside.
- Stymie Molinar. The Bulldogs’ biggest weakness is their lack of guards. Molinar carries this team on the offensive end at times. Having a ton of bigs is great for dominating the paint and cleaning up on the glass, but it significantly limits your offensive opportunities. It’s just really hard to create space with that kind of roster make-up. Alabama needs to get the ball out of Molinar’s hands as much as possible on the defensive end, and try to get him into foul trouble when the opportunity presents itself.
- Tempo. Alabama swept Mississippi State in three games last season, but the first two meetings were tight victories for the Tide because Ben Howland’s slow, bruising pace dictated the tempo of the game. The Bulldogs are 316th in the country in pace, which isn’t at all surprising when you consider the roster make-up. They want to slow Alabama down and make this an ugly slog. When the Tide has dictated the tempo against State, it’s not gone well for the Bulldogs - see last year’s 84-48 slaughter in the SEC Tournament. Speed the game up and make the Bulldog bigs a problem rather than an advantage for State. This will help negate the rebounding discrepancy that is surely going to play out today.
This season is far from lost, but Alabama really has a lot to figure out between now and March. The good news is that the NCAA Tournament is all but a lock for the Tide - the resume is just too good for anything short of a complete meltdown to miss the Big Dance. Still, it’d be nice to see the team we saw in early December return.
Making the short trip to Starkville is never an easy one for Alabama, as the Bulldogs have always given the Tide fits at the Hump. DraftKings Sportsbook has State as a 1.5-point favorite* today, which feels like a bit of a hedge on their part. This would normally be a trappy spot for the Tide, but with how the last two games have gone, Alabama may be much less likely to get upset in Starkville today.
The game will tip-off at 5:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.