Bama/Bulldogs battle

Recent records aside, both Alabama and Mississippi State harbor championship hopes this season. And the fact that the two squads don't necessarily like each other very much only adds fuel to the fire.

"It makes for a very good college basketball game," said Tide Head Coach Mark Gottfried, speaking of tonight's match-up. "Mississippi State is as good as anybody in the country. They can play with anybody, and certainly we think we can as well.

"Player for player State is probably more talented than the UCLA team I helped coach to the national championship. We're going to have our hands full."

Alabama enters tonight's game 11-2 overall and 1-1 in the Southeastern Conference with a 61-51 home win against Arkansas and a 70-69 loss at Vanderbilt. Mississippi State's record is 10-3 overall and 0-2 in league play with losses to Florida and at LSU.

True freshman Chuck Davis has played well recently, and his defense will be needed to help contain State's Mario Austin.

Both teams lost SEC games last Saturday, Alabama on the road at Vanderbilt and Mississippi State on the road at LSU (85-72). As a result, they also both dropped in the rankings, Alabama from No. 4 in both polls last week to No. 9 AP and No. 10 ESPN/USA Today. MSU is now at No. 14 AP after being No. 7 last week, and is at No. 13 ESPN/USA Today.

"I'm sure they're going to be hungry coming in," Gottfried acknowledged. "But the record at this point is irrelevant. We have a lot of respect for them. We know they're very good."

Interestingly, both teams sport former McDonald's All-Americas. Alabama's starting point guard, sophomore Mo Williams was a McDonald's All-American in 2001. MSU's Mario Austin, an Alabama native out of York, was a 2000 McDonald's All-American. Averaging 19.7 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, at times this season Austin has appeared unstoppable around the basket.

"He's a great player," Gottfried said. "He does so many things well. He does a great job of drawing fouls. We've got to help out defending him. With Mario, it's a bit like ‘pick your poison.' If you go 40 minutes with him catching the ball around the basket, then you're in for a long night."

Austin is nursing a twisted knee, prompting speculation that he may not start versus the Tide. According to reports out of Starkville it will be a "game time" decision, but Gottfried thinks he can predict that one. "What do you think?" he asked laughing. "I think I know what to expect. Obviously if Mario is not 100 percent then he could be limited, but we'll have our hands full either way."

Alabama leads the series 66-12 in games played in Tuscaloosa and has won the last three games in Coleman Coliseum between these two SEC Western Division teams. The teams split regular season games last season with Alabama beating the Bulldogs 85-73 in Tuscaloosa but falling 76-62 in Starkville. However, the Bulldogs beat Alabama 61-58 in the SEC Tournament Championship final in Atlanta.

Emmett Thomas should be completely recovered from his knee sprain, and his offense could be key. (Associated Press)

"It's a good rivalry," Gottfried said of Bama/MSU. "The two teams are so close to each other. We're after a lot of the same players, and recruiting is about as competitive as anything we do. This year State is ranked high, and they've got our respect."

Mississippi State won last year's SEC tournament and is expected to contend again. The Bulldogs lost their first two conference games at home to a hot-shooting Florida squad and on the road at LSU, but according to Gottfried that's just par for the course in the rough and tumble SEC. "Their conference record is not really relevant to this game," he said. "Night in and night out you always have tough games in this league."

Junior guard Antoine Pettway's status for Wednesday night's game is "questionable". The Alberta native sustained a "mild to moderate" right ankle sprain in the late going in Saturday night's game at Vanderbilt. He returned to practice on Monday but was held out of some drills. "He rolled it pretty good," Gottfried said. "We'll have to see if he can cut. Some other guys are just going to have to step up. Demetrius Smith is one that is very capable. I have confidence in him."

Gottfried added that junior wing man Emmett Thomas should be fully recovered from his strained knee by game time.

Following Alabama's home game on Wednesday night, it hits the road for two games. Alabama plays at Auburn on Saturday, January 18 in another JP game (3 p.m. CT). After that it's on to Oxford, Miss., for a Tuesday, January 21 date at Ole Miss. That's an 8 p.m. CT ESPN game.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Becky Hopf of Alabama's Media Relations Department contributed to this report.

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