Battle for the SEC Heats Up

Alabama and Mississippi State have ascended to the top of the heap in the Southeastern conference's Western Division in recent years, and depending on the outcome of Tuesday night's game between the Bulldogs and the Tide, an early favorite to win the division in 2005 could be established.

"If we want to have any shot at winning the SEC title, it starts tomorrow night," Alabama forward Kennedy Winston said.

A packed house, which will undoubtedly include a few thousand maroon-clad State fans who will make the short drive to Tuscaloosa Tuesday night, will watch one of college basketball's best players lead the 11th-ranked Bulldogs (15-3 overall, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) against a trio of Crimson Tide standouts in the 8 p.m. ESPN-televised game. 23rd-ranked Alabama (Associated Press) is 13-3 overall with a 2-1 conference record.

Conventional wisdom indicates that the pressure would rest on the home team to defend its own turf, but that was not the case a year ago between MSU and Alabama as the road team won each time the squads played.

While the nation will be watching the early-season top 25 battle, Alabama Head Coach Mark Gottfried said there is no more emphasis on Tuesday's game than any other league game.

"We don't really talk about who's picked, and who's favorites and all that," Gottfried said. "You've got a 16-game schedule in the SEC and the team that can consistently play at a high level over the course of 16 games, and play well on the road, is the team that's going to stand there on top at the end."

MSU senior Lawrence Roberts is the league's second-leading scorer (19.0 ppg) and the leading rebounder (11.6 rpg). Winston and Earnest Shelton share Alabama's scoring leadership with 16.9 points per game each. Chuck Davis follows with 14.9 points per game.

Alabama Head Coach Mark Gottfried points out that containing Roberts while staying away from foul trouble is a tough task, but the key will limit Roberts to one shot per offensive possession and holding him under his four offensive rebounds per game average.

"We need to stay out of foul trouble inside," Gottfried said. "Lawrence Roberts' number of free throw attempts is astronomical. It is off the charts. He's getting to the line a lot because he's a great rebounder and he's getting to the board."

The normally liberal allowance by officials in SEC games for physical inside play could be a big factor in the game. Roberts has attempted 155 free throw attempts on the season, 66 more attempts than the Arkansas' Ronnie Brewer, who has the second-highest total.

"I think that will be a collective effort," Winston said. "We need to limit him to one shot and keep him from getting good position in the post. He's their man but they have a good supporting cast around him."

The Bulldogs' supporting class will be missing the nine points per game contributed by Winsome Frazier. Frazier has not played in State's past two games due to an injury. Forward Shane Power is the only starter besides Roberts averaging in double figures at 10.4 per game.

Chuck Davis, who has blossomed into one of the nation's top post players, will be one of many to defend against Roberts. In addition, he will be asked to provide an offensive punch. Davis became a non-factor in the late portions of both games against Mississippi State last year.

"I thought I was prepared last year, but unfortunately I got into foul trouble in both games," Davis said. " feel like I've got that under control this year. If I can stay in and play there's nothing they can do to prevent me from having the type of game I'm capable of."

Mississippi State averages a stunning +10.6 rebounding margin over opponents, the second highest margin in the SEC is +6 by Kentucky. Alabama has a +5.7 rebounding margin on opponents.

"We're not real big and physical," Gottfried said. "As a team we've got to find a way to rebound better."

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