After an absolutely atrocious first half that likened back to the pitiful performance in Athens two years ago, the 24th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (15-6, 7-1 SEC; NET: 7; Kenpom: 8) locked in this past Wednesday and put on a dominant second half to come from behind and beat the Georgia Bulldogs in the kind of game that only teams with winning cultures can pull off. The win kept the Tide alone at the top of the SEC standings as it looks to win the regular season title for the third time in four years. Major credit to Nate Oats and his brand-new staff for making the necessary adjustments and getting the team to rise above what could have been an easy mental block to overcome that adversity and secure a win. Still, that first half performance was disgusting, and it just goes to show that you cannot take a night off in college basketball, especially with how strong the SEC has become over the years.
Which brings us to the next game on Saturday night, as the Tide welcomes in the Mississippi State Bulldogs (14-7, 3-5 SEC; NET: 37; Kenpom: 33). The Dogs will make the annual trip up Highway 82 for the latest installment in one of the SEC’s oldest rivalries. Nate Oats has dominated this series, leading the Bullies 9-2 since he took over the program. But it hasn’t always been easy. State has always provided an interesting challenge as they are basically anti-Bama - a slow, grinding, big, physical team that wins with defense and rebounding and whose perimeter shots are closer to prayers than they are legitimate attempts at scoring points.
Second year coach Chris Jans is attempting to get the Bulldogs back into the Big Dance in consecutive seasons for the first time since the height of the Rick Stansbury era, but in order to do so, State will need to show that it can win some big games away from home. They are squarely on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament at this time, in large part because of the lack of wins away from the Hump in Starkville - 0-5 in true roads, in fact. So, they will be desperate to come into Tuscaloosa and avenge their earlier - and rare - home loss. Alabama needs to avoid having another half like the one the team experienced the last time out.
From Last Time
Erik covered the initial meeting for these two teams about a month back, and here’s a little snippet of what he had to say:
It is a testament to Chris Jans’ ability that Mississippi State is even on the bubble at the moment. MSU (NET 28, Ken Pom 24), is about defense and only defense. The Bulldogs lead the SEC in points allowed (63.7), are 3rd in floor shooting allowed, and 1st in 3P defense (27%). And they somehow rebound even worse than Alabama, shoot a grisly 22% from the arc in SEC play, are the second-worst floor shooting team in the conference...hell, they’re even the worst free throw shooting team in the SEC and get to the line the least of any school.
They are “led” offensively, by Josh Hubbard (15.3), with everyone else chipping in 7-9 per game. It’s not a deep bench, and if the starters get in trouble, an already feeble ‘State offense grows more anemic than Lord Byron on a laudanum bender. There is a reason why they have some truly bad-to-mid losses to USCe, Georgia Tech and Southern: that 168th ranked offense. But also why, when healthy and out of foul trouble, they can outhustle teams like Tennessee for wins: the nation’s purported 9th best defense.
It seems like most years Mississippi State has to win with boring, defense-first, enigma basketball. And the coach may have changed, but that’s true again this season. It’s a scrappy opponent that plays a lot of close games. Seriously, it doesn’t even feel like Ben Howland left. It’s not been a great schedule, no. But you beat who shows up, and you do it by forcing your pace of play. Like the ‘Bama-Gamecocks tilt, the winner of this will be the team that can dictate the tempo.
You can find the full preview Erik put together here
E definitely nailed it - the winner of the first game was going to be the team that a) dictated the tempo, b) took care of the ball the best, and c) made the tough shots down the stretch. To State’s credit, they outrebounded the Tide by a board, had one less turnover, and even shot surprisingly well from the arc (7/17). The difference though, is that Alabama was able to speed the Bulldogs up and make a bunch of shots themselves, and ultimately, it was the Tide’s ability to get to the line and knock down free throws (22/26 including six straight in the final 30 seconds) that resulted in an 82-74 road win for the fellas.
Individually, Grant Nelson’s defense was the unsung hero that night - holding State’s stud big man, Tolu Smith, to just 15 points on as many attempts and forcing the physical post into five turnovers. Mo Wague was out for this game, and Nick Pringle somehow picked up five fouls in six minutes. This was the birth of Nelson as an interior defender, and he’s since been able to show better in that regard. Mark Sears had another ho-hum 22-point outing, and Latrell Wrightsell’s 19 points on 5/7 shooting from deep was massive.
Another Battle of Bully Ball
We’ve seen enough of these matchups since Oats took over to know exactly what to look for at this point. Basically, if Mississippi State can slow the game down and lock-down the perimeter, it’s going to be a physical, down-to-the-wire brawl. If Alabama can set the tempo and get enough open looks or trips to the foul line, this could get ugly for the Bulldogs. These two teams are currently the conference’s worst when it comes to taking care of the basketball, so extra possessions and potential runouts will be both critical and likely in large supply tonight.
State really struggles to put the ball in the basket if you can keep in front of them - 269th in 3P% and 291st in FT% - so they simply don’t have the juice to be able to keep pace with Alabama if the Tide can stay as hot as the guys have been at home recently. Still, Chris Jans’ team can play. You kind of have to look past their 3-5 record in SEC play, as they’ve had the hardest conference schedule this season by far - road trips to South Carolina, Florida, Kentucky, and Ole Miss with home tilts against Tennessee, Auburn, Vandy, and of course, Alabama. They are rightfully in the mix for a return trip to the tournament, and they are certainly a better team and a tougher stylistic matchup than the Dawgs of Georgia who nearly knocked off the Tide the other night.
Gotta bring the energy every night in this league, particularly when the foe is this familiar. Alabama is listed as an 8.5-point favorite tonight. The game will tip-off at 7:30 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.