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Bama Basketball Breakdown and How to Watch: SEC Quarterfinals - Mississippi State

Alabama starts off its SEC Tournament run with a familiar foe

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

With the SEC Tournament well underway at this point, we can officially say that the madness of March is here - and it is spectacular. Today, the fourth-ranked and top-seeded Alabama Crimson Tide (26-5, 16-2 SEC; Kenpom: 3; T-Rank: 2; NET: 2) - your regular season SEC Champs - will begin its quest for another SEC Tournament title. If the Tide is able to cut down the nets this weekend in Nashville, it will add to Alabama’s well-stocked trophy case. With its 11th regular season title already in tow - which tied LSU and Tennessee for second-most all-time - Alabama can extend its lead for second-most SEC Tournament titles with its eighth trophy in program history. Don’t let anyone tell you that Alabama is only a football school.

Additionally, a tournament title this weekend would be the second time in three years that Nate Oats and the Tide were able to sweep both SEC championships - a feat no one outside of Lexington, Kentucky has ever accomplished. It would also further solidify Alabama’s spot on the one-line for the Big Dance and give the Tide a very convincing argument for #1 overall. So, there’s a lot to be gained for Alabama basketball this week, both historically and in relation to this season alone.

Speaking of which, let’s switch the focus to today’s match-up. One of the bubbliest of the bubble teams in college basketball, the Mississippi State Bulldogs (21-11; 8-10 SEC; Kenpom: 45; T-Rank: 51; NET: 46) kept their season alive yesterday by the skin of their teeth, defeating the Florida Gators 69-68 in overtime. Alabama, of course, has a long, heated history with its closest neighbors, and this season was certainly no different. The Bullies gave Alabama two of its closest contests this season - the Tide survived a trip to Starkville with a 78-67 win back in the SEC opener and then came from behind to top the Bulldogs at home 66-63 just before the SEC-Big 12 Challenge took place in late January.

Beating any team three times in a single season is not a simple task, especially one with so much familiarity with the program. Stylistically, State has almost always given Nate Oats’ Alabama teams a lot of problems, no matter how outmatched they might seem. Although, the one exception to that came in this exact same scenario just two years ago:

So, Just Roll Out There and Do it Again

Easy there, disembodied narrator. While Mississippi State hasn’t changed much about their style of play since the first two meetings, the Bulldogs have been playing said style at a much higher level. After the Dogs came into Tuscaloosa and went toe-to-toe with the Tide, it clearly gave them a big boost in confidence. Since that match-up, State has won nine of its last twelve games, including victories over the likes of TCU, Arkansas (on the road), and Texas A&M. First year head coach Chris Jans did a tremendous job of keeping this team together after a brutal stretch towards the beginning of conference play where they lost five in a row and eight of nine.

Tolu Smith - first team All-SEC post - has been a man among boys at times this season, and yesterday was no exception. With Colin Castleton sidelined with a season-ending injury, Smith did whatever he wanted to the Florida frontline, dropping 28 points to go along with 12 rebounds in an elite performance that included the game-winning basket. This guy is a massive problem who went for 15 points and 7 boards the last time he matched up with the Tide.

As for Alabama, the Tide hasn’t exactly played its best ball the past few weeks. The three-point shooting has fallen off of a cliff suddenly. In its last four games - which have coincided with the media’s public prosecution of Brandon Miller - Alabama has made just 25 of 116 three-pointers - a ghastly 21.6%. To put that in perspective, Mississippi State is actually the worst three-point shooting team in all of college basketball, and they shoot 27.0% from downtown. Additionally, it seems like the guys have waited until halftime each game before they actually come out and play at a consistently high energy level. In all honestly, we simply haven’t seen the same Tide team since the frenzied public tried to take an axe to Alabama’s season. Is that a mere coincidence? It’s hard to tell.

Now, the Tide did still go 3-1 in that stretch with a pair of wins over NCAA Tournament teams, and damn near still beat #18 Texas A&M on the road despite playing an 11:00 AM tip just three days after winning the regular season title in epic fashion over their hated rivals. I’m not saying anyone should be reaching for their nearest cactus. But there is certainly more concern and doubt among Tide Hoops fans now than there was just a couple of weeks ago. Maybe a long break and the spotlight of the postseason will get Nate Oats’ guys back in the groove we saw them in for most of the year.

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Dictate the Tempo. This is always priority #1 when Alabama meets up with Mississippi State. The affectionately named Slaw Dogs are a slooooow, methodical group that like to muck the game up and get really physical. Alabama, of course, likes to push the pace at all times. State has some athletes, but most of these huge dudes that Ben Howland left in the cupboard for Jans aren’t trying to get into any wind sprints, especially after playing an extra period yesterday. Plus, the Bulldogs are elite in the defensive halfcourt - 6th in the country in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, in fact. The best way to get open looks at the rim is to beat the Bulldogs down the court and prevent them from getting settled into their halfcourt set.
  2. Force Jumpers. Nate Oats doesn’t often instruct his bigs to deny the low post much, but he might want to consider it today. As mentioned, Mississippi State is literally the worst shooting team in America. Allowing the Bulldogs to penetrate the paint or get the ball inside easily - which happened in both of the earlier meetings, by the way - is quite inexcusable, really. Charles Bediako, Noah Clowney, Noah Gurley, and Nick Pringle are going to be the X-Factors in this game, as Oats will likely choose to let them play straight-up man-to-man; he doesn’t break tendencies often. But I would highly recommend he consider it today. If State beats Alabama by randomly knocking down a bunch of treys (certainly not out of the question given Tide Hoops’ history), you just have to tip your cap and move on.
  3. Rebounding. Again, the Bullies have earned their nicknames this season. They’ve got big, athletic, physical dudes all over the frontcourt. Mississippi State is 14th in the country in OREB%, and Alabama has been a bit vulnerable on the glass recently. If the shots still aren’t falling for the Tide, they can’t let State dominate the boards, because we know they will be missing plenty of shots themselves. Rebounding opportunities will likely be plentiful in this game, which would open the door to an upset win if Alabama doesn’t get a little bit of their edge back in this area.

As much as I would like to confidently say that Alabama will repeat its performance from the 2021 SEC Tournament quarterfinals against Mississippi State, it’s kind of hard to predict that at this point. Still, Alabama is one of the best teams in college basketball this season - even better than they were two years ago. There isn’t a team in the country that the Tide couldn’t beat at its best. But it would be nice to see that version of Alabama make a return today.

As it stands, Alabama is a 6.5-point favorite today. The game will be televised on ESPN, and the opening tip-off is set for noon CST. Let’s hope another magical March run begins this afternoon, folks.