In a midweek clash in Starkville, Alabama and Mississippi State will engage in a contest of two of the hottest teams in the league as of late.
A win for either side would certainly help in the race for positioning in the SEC tournament, which makes this one of the most important tilts of this week’s slate.
The Crimson Tide have won six of their last eight games, which includes wins over three ranked opponents – Auburn, Oklahoma, and Florida – as well as a home victory over Mississippi State. This recent success has the Tide at 15-8 overall and 6-4 record in conference, which has the Tide securely positioned in the NCAA tournament discussion.
This game against the Bulldogs is very important for Alabama so that its positive momentum can be sustained throughout a tough stretch in home games against Tennessee and LSU, and road games at Kentucky and Auburn.
The Tide can still potentially finish in the top four of the SEC in the regular season and get a coveted double-bye in the conference tournament.
Mississippi State is equally as hot, having won its last three games in conference play over potential NCAA Tournament teams in Missouri, South Carolina, and Georgia. The Bulldogs have amassed a record of 17-6 overall and 5-5 in conference, and they will need to continue that upward movement to improve their resume for potential postseason play.
Ben Howland’s team is entering into a stretch of winnable games, so if it can maintain that momentum, it can certainly reel off a winning streak that’ll help make a push into the top half of the SEC.
Let’s take a look at the players to watch, the keys to victory, and a score prediction for Tuesday’s tilt at the Hump.
Players to Watch
Braxton Key (Alabama)
The Crimson Tide’s biggest matchup nightmare has had an up-and-down season so far while battling injury.
Key, at 6-8 and 225 pounds, has one of the biggest frames on the team while playing on the perimeter and can provide a matchup problem for most teams, with Mississippi State being no exception.
If the Bulldogs stick with their standard starting lineup, the onus will be on Aric Holman to defend Key, and I don’t anticipate him being able to keep up with the foot speed of Key on the offensive end.
The Alabama sophomore played 34 minutes against Florida, posting a team-high +29 plus/minus rating during his time on the floor.
If Key can maintain that high level of play, the Tide have a great chance to steal a road victory before returning home to Tuscaloosa for another important game on Saturday.
Lamar Peters (Mississippi State)
Peters was dynamic against the Tide in the last matchup, scoring 17 points and leading the Bulldogs’ comeback effort in Tuscaloosa, which ultimately came up short but was nonetheless impressive.
Peters was talked about in NBA circles as a potential top-10 pick after his performance at Adidas Nations over the summer, but that stock has tapered off as of late.
Still, Peters’ scoring talent cannot be denied, and if he can handle the assignment of Collin Sexton that Howland gave him publicly this week, look for the sophomore to give the Tide headaches as he darts around and scores from all levels of the floor.
How Alabama Can Win
The Tide need to be able to withstand the runs that Mississippi State tends to go on offensively.
The Bulldogs can defend most teams in the SEC, but struggle to score for stretches during game, so it’ll be crucial for the Bulldogs to string runs together by forcing Alabama turnovers.
Alabama has proven to be able to win games despite turnover numbers being less than ideal, but the Tide have had to rely on strong half-court offense and high-level transition defense to offset the high level of turnovers.
If Alabama’s half-court offense struggles against Mississippi State’s high level defense, Johnson’s squad will struggle to score and put themselves in a bad situation.
How Mississippi State Can Win
Mississippi State needs to be able to keep a level-headedness when it comes to its shot selection.
The Bulldogs rank 344thin the country in 3-point shooting percentage, so if they find themselves shooting more than 25 threes in a game like this one, they may struggle to keep up.
Mississippi State has not shot better than 43.5 percent on threes in any game this season, and most of its losses have seen them shoot less than 30 percent from behind the arc.
So, if the Bulldogs can avoid shooting threes in bunches and get to the bucket for easy looks, they have a great chance to hold serve at home and get back to the top half of the SEC for the first time in quite some time.
Heading into this game, the matchups feel very even across the board.
Look for Sexton to have a good game against the Bulldogs in his only matchup with them this season, but also keep an eye on the guards from Mississippi State to hold their own against the Tide’s group.
It’s hard to pick against the home team in this year’s SEC, so I won’t. But this game could honestly go either way.
I’ll take Mississippi State’s backcourt to show out in one of its biggest tests of the season, which should lead to enough points off of turnovers to win the game.
Prediction: Mississippi State 66, Alabama 61