Tide Blowout Made Different Questions Emerge

You rub your eyes, scratch the sleep out and look at the final score again and again, thinking it almost certainly a misprint.

Alabama 98, Mississippi State 49?

You sure about that?

For Crimson Tide men's basketball fans, Tuesday night's public flogging of Mississippi State was almost too good to be true. And maybe it was.

It sounds strange, but the rout brought up almost as many questions as it answered. Here are a few:

Is Alabama really as good as it looked Tuesday?

Are the Bulldogs really that bad without Winsome Frazier?

Can the Tide repeat its first-half performance again this season?

Is Alabama a legit SEC title contender?

Will Mark Gottfried's crew crash back to earth Saturday at Ole Miss, where Alabama has never won in his seven-year tenure?

Legit questions, all. The best part is that 11 games remain to flesh out what's true and what isn't about this Alabama basketball team.

And we aren't asking questions about why this team can't score. Or can't defend. Or can't develop its big men into dominating forces. Or integrate a true freshman point guard into a veteran-dominated starting lineup. Because the Crimson Tide has shown it can do all that and more.

Coming into this season, Gottfried had legit questions about his team:

Would Ronald Steele fill the ruby-red shoes Antoine Pettway left behind?

Could a much younger bench still make a major impact during the SEC season?

Could this season's roster repeat last season's Elite Eight magic?

Here, in late January, two of the first three questions have been answered.

Steele has been one of the SEC's top point guards, one of its top assist-to-turnover men whose unselfish play lets his team's offense flow with machine-like efficiency.

And although the bench has struggled at times, Evan Brock has shown signs of becoming a very effective sixth man, and Jean Felix is a few made shots away from being the instant-offense option Alabama so badly needs. Gottfried said after a disappointing SEC-opening loss at Vanderbilt that "last season's magic is over," and maybe he was right.

Maybe this team needed a couple of disheartening losses – like those at Vanderbilt and Wisconsin – so it could realize that it must create its own identity and stop drawing currency from the Elite Eight run. It has done so with defense. In each of its last three victories, Alabama has taken momentum in a chokehold with an impressive defensive run.

LSU was held without a field goal for 10:46. Arkansas didn't score a basket for 8:45. Tuesday, Mississippi State went without a hoop for an amazing 14:37, turning a 9-8 battle early into a 49-18 blowout at halftime.

It has done so with offense, too. When Earnest Shelton's shooting touch is on and the big men stay out of foul trouble, Alabama can score with anyone in America. Heck, it took MSU 28 minutes just to outscore Shelton – who finished with a career-high 34 points.

With sophomore center Jermareo Davidson's development into a potent scoring force inside, the Tide no longer has a weak link, offensively or defensively, in its starting five.

His emergence frees up forward Chuck Davis from double-teams and keeps pressure off Shelton and Kennedy Winston outside, allowing them to fire threes with impunity and dish inside whenever they want.

When it all comes together – and the other guys slip a little bit – the result is a sight to behold. Tuesday's first half was a roundball version of the perfect storm, good enough to blow away any team in America. It doesn't happen very often. It might not happen again this season. But it happened Tuesday, and it offered a glimpse of the Tide's potential for another trip deep into March.

Alabama has established itself as one of the two best teams in a down SEC, behind only Kentucky and ahead of Florida (who lost at home to a struggling Tennessee team) and, of course, the Bulldogs.

The Wildcats are one of the nation's best, but their 53-50 victory Wednesday at Ole Miss is a textbook example of why the SEC has no room for off-nights. UK trailed 29-14 at halftime, and only a missed three at the buzzer kept them from overtime at the Tad Pad.

By the way, Alabama goes to Oxford Saturday, where Gottfried is 0-6 as Tide coach.

A victory there would go a long way towards proving Alabama's legitimacy as an SEC contender, but a loss wouldn't be the end of the world.

The Tide has proved it can play with the SEC's best.

The next two months will tell whether it can play with America's best – and take the program to unseen heights for the second consecutive year.

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