With Selection Sunday just three weeks(!) out from this upcoming weekend, the selection committee will be unveiling the sixteen teams that make-up its current top-four - or protected - seed lines in advance of the Alabama Crimson Tide’s (16-9, 6-6 SEC; NET: 23; Kenpom: 19) meeting with the Kentucky Wildcats Saturday at noon. While the Tide is far from a lock to be included in that group again this year, Alabama has a shot at potentially cracking the top sixteen - but only if it can take care of business at home tonight against the Mississippi State Bulldogs (14-10, 5-6 SEC; NET: 50; Kenpom: 43).
Ben Howland’s Bulldogs find themselves in territory very familiar to Tide Hoops fans - just outside the projected tournament field with a few weeks to go. They have also lost three straight in conference play to fall from a top-four spot in the SEC standings. So, this is a very desperate team that the Tide will be hosting tonight in Coleman Coliseum. And desperate teams are very dangerous. Especially when they are a quality team to begin with.
As you surely remember, Alabama lost to these Bulldogs already once this year - a sloppy 78-76 loss in Starkville that was part of an ugly three-game losing streak in January. The Tide has strung together a pair of strong performances (minus the last six minutes of the Arkansas game) coming into this one, but if Alabama wants to really get going and make some noise in March, the guys need to keep working on cleaning things up and building momentum.
From Last Time
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.
Check out this link to read the full Breakdown for the last meeting
In their first meeting, the Crimson Tide led most of the second half before blowing it late, topped-off with a horrific final possession that ended in a desperate game-winning shot from Keon Ellis. The Tide shot just 8/29 from three - which turned out to be an indicator of things to come from Alabama’s offense - but surprisingly held its own on the glass, in part due to the return of James Rojas. The Tide still mostly let Mississippi State control the pace of the game, and we ended up with an ugly free throw shooting contest with a combined 66 attempts from the charity stripe.
Iverson Molinar was the game’s MVP - dropping 24 points and 4 assists on 8/17 shooting - so it is safe to say that the Tide did not do much to stymie the All-SEC point guard. He also got to the line for eight freebies. The biggest issue for the Tide though was that Mississippi State got up 59 shots and 38 free throw attempts to Alabama’s 56 shots and 28 free throw attempts, which made the difference in what was a very evenly matched game.
Two Paths Converging
As mentioned, these two teams have been moving in different directions as of late. While Alabama has started to - hopefully - heat up in the past week, Mississippi State has been taking losses left and right - not only have they lost three straight conference games, they’ve lost five of six overall. However, it’s not like they’ve gotten blasted in those games. They took Kentucky to overtime, lost close road games to Arkansas and LSU, and just couldn’t get over the hump at the Hump against a red-hot Tennessee team last week. Those are all NCAA Tournament teams. State can play good, solid basketball still. And again, they are desperate for a win.
This is going to be a tough one tonight, with the Bulldogs playing with an incredible sense of urgency as they move further out on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Alabama has to do a better job of controlling this game, and I don’t just mean by dictating tempo. The Tide needs to do a much better job of limiting Molinar, making shots count, and rebounding their misses. Additionally, the turnovers were hideous on Saturday. That was the only reason Alabama didn’t beat Arkansas handily. That has to be cleaned up.
DraftKings Sportsbook has Alabama listed as a 6-point favorite* tonight, which is a decent amount of points to lay. This rivalry has definitely been one over the years that you expect to be a split, with both teams defending home court. But, the desperate, dangerous dogs are going to give it their all tonight. Will Alabama respond in kind?
The game tips-off at 6:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN2.
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.