I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas and is still enjoying the perks of the holiday season, as we march toward a new year this weekend! As 2023 looms, the SEC begins conference play on the hardwood tonight, as a full slate featuring the ten teams that will represent the SEC in the final (cries) SEC-Big 12 Challenge do battle. For the Alabama Crimson Tide (10-2, Kenpom: 12; T-Rank: 11; NET: 8), that means a short trip over the state border to take on the 21st-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs (11-1, Kenpom: 36; T-Rank: 49; NET: 26) at the Hump.
The Bulldogs are coming off of their first loss of the season, a disappointing 58-52 defeat to Drake right before the holiday break. Despite that though, first year head coach Chris Jans has had his Bulldogs playing an absolutely smothering defense - a trait he brought over from his time at New Mexico State, where he led the Aggies to a quartet of WAC titles in five years and a trio of NCAA Tournament appearances. And although the schedule hasn’t exactly been a murderer’s row, the Bulldogs currently boast wins over the likes of Marquette, Utah, and Minnesota.
Tonight’s game should harken back to the days of Stansbury and Gottfried, when Alabama and Mississippi State routinely had top-25 showdowns in the early 2000s. This rivalry was quite heated at the turn of the century, as both teams were littered with talented players
that totally went to those two schools for above-board reasons and often decided supremacy in the SEC West, back when the conference was still split by divisions. This should be a fun callback tonight, as it should be a really physical contest between two big, athletic teams that protect the basket at all costs.
POINT 6’2 Dashawn Davis (9.2 PPG, 2.8 APG, 1.9 RPG, 86.9 DRtg)
GUARD 6’2 Eric Reed (6.3 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 1.1 APG, 91.4 DRtg)
WING 6’7 D.J. Jeffries (9.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 2.3 APG, 84.1 DRtg)
WING 6’7 Cam Matthews (6.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.4 APG, 77.8 DRtg)
POST 6’10 Tolu Smith (15.6 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 1.8 APG, 80.7 DRtg)
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’1 Shakeel Moore (7.1 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.1 APG, 70.1 DRtg)
GUARD 6’4 Jamel Horton (1.4 PPG, 1.5 APG, 1.1 RPG, 88.1 DRtg)
POST 6’8 Tyler Stevenson (4.3 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 84.4 DRtg)
POST 6’10 KeShawn Murphy (3.6 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 1.0 APG, 71.4 DRtg)
POST 6’10 William McNair (3.3 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 78.4 DRtg)
The first two things that come to mind when you look through State’s roster are size and experience. According to Kenpom, the Bulldogs are 66th in the country in D-1 experience and 39th in average height. These two attributes are what drives the nation’s 5th-ranked defense, which ranks 9th in country in eFG% at 41.9%, 20th in Turnover Rate at 24.3%, 30th in 3P% allowed at 28.4%, and 6th in Free Throw Rate Allowed at 19.1%.
The flip side to that is that Mississippi State is not good on the offensive side of the court. DeShawn Davis - who transferred in from Oregon State - has been a bright spot (49.1%/53.3%/73.3; 22.1% AST%) as the team’s point guard. But the rest of this team just can’t shoot the ball, as they are 303rd in the country in 3P% at just 30.5%. D.J. Jeffries has taken on the role as the primary player in the offense (35.9%/30.0%/61.5% on 9.8 FGA per game; 15.2% AST%), and Eric Reed at least profiles as a true shooting guard (34.7%/28.6%/78.6%), but the Bulldogs’ best source of offense all season has come from getting into the paint and banging on the boards.
That assignment is usually led by Tolu Smith, a legitimate All-SEC contender who utilizes his raw strength and power to bully defenders in the paint and dominate the glass (18.0% REB%). But he has a lot of help, as State has three fellow bigs that come off of the bench for waves of physical post play.
Three Keys to Victory
- Take Care of the Basketball. Surprise! I’d love to stop including this in this section, but when you’ve got one of the worst teams in the country in turnovers (Alabama - at 321st in the nation) going up against one of the best in turning opponents over (Mississippi State - at 20th in college basketball), it’s kind of a critical component to the game.
- Dictate the Tempo. This goes hand-in-hand with taking care of the basketball. Chris Jans hasn’t changed the way Mississippi State approaches the pace of play at all, as the Bulldogs are 341st in Tempo - by far the slowest in the SEC. They really D-up in the halfcourt and string together stops by playing elite team defense. The best way for the Tide to overcome this, of course, would be by pushing the pace of the game and preventing the Bulldogs from getting into their halfcourt defense as much as possible. Alabama needs to be hitting the outlet passes and running up the court ASAP tonight.
- Win the Battle of the Boards. With Mississippi State’s size, it’s no surprise that they are 6th in the country in OREB%, just ahead of Alabama at 14. As I mentioned earlier, it’s honestly the best part of their offense. I’ve talked a lot about how elite State’s defense has been, but outside of the Gonzaga game, Alabama has been right there with them. If the Tide can limit turnovers and win the rebounding battle, Nate Oats squad should be able to escape Starkville with a win tonight.
The real meat of the season starts tonight for Alabama, as the quest to bring home an SEC title begins in Starkville. Non-conference play was a smashing success for the 8th-ranked Crimson Tide, but the next two months are what people really remember when Selection Sunday rolls around. This should be a war tonight, as both teams utilize size and athleticism to power their elite defenses.
Can Alabama start off conference play with a bang? It won’t be easy against the Bulldogs, who are one of the few teams the Tide won’t be a significant favorite against in SEC play this year. The game closes out the day with an 8:00 PM CST tip-off and will be broadcast on the SEC Network.