When the squads last met on January 15th in Tuscaloosa, the Bulldogs were 0-3 in the SEC and desperate for a conference win. Alabama, on the other hand, had lost just two games all season and was still ranked among the nation's elite. The Tide forced overtime that night, pulling away in the extra period for a 68-62 win.
But since that game Alabama basketball has struggled to keep its head above the surface, paddling furiously in rough waters to prove it deserves an NCAA tournament bid.
Last Saturday's road win at Tennessee was crucial, but Tide Head Coach Mark Gottfried knows there is still work to be done. "We just need to keep doing what we've been doing," Gottfried said. "Our guys know there is a lot of work in front of us and a lot of games left to play. We'll use that old line about playing one game at a time.
"Hopefully, we're a team that can play its best basketball down the stretch."
The Tide holds a firm 105-63 lead in the overall series, but State has won the last four games in Starkville, usually by comfortable margins.
"They've created a great college atmosphere," Gottfried said. "As good as anybody in the conference. It'll be a tough test for us. Hopefully we'll have some momentum after the Tennessee win, but Mississippi State is a quality team. We've got our work cut out for us. Hopefully we'll play better this year than we have in the past."
Averaging 16.9 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, center Mario Austin is again the team leader for State. Excellent team defense allowed the Tide to essentially shut him down in the second half of January's game, but Gottfried doesn't expect that to happen again. "That was an unusual half for him," Gottfried said. "We had active hands that night and deflected a lot of passes in the passing lanes. Austin does such a great job of positioning himself without the ball, that he's tough to defend. I know he's anxious for this game. He knows the last time wasn't one of his better games."
Both Austin and Alabama's Erwin Dudley (15.0 ppg, 9.7 rpg) are candidates for the John Wooden Award, signifying the nation's top player. Dudley and Austin were voted first team in the NABC (National Association of Basketball Coaches) Division I All-District 9 team. Interestingly, the two grew up within a couple of hours of one another, Dudley in Uniontown, Alabama and Austin in nearby Sumter County's York, Alabama.
In Timmy Bowers (14.6 ppg) and Derrick Zimmerman (9.0 ppg, 5.1 apg), the Bulldogs sport one of the best guard combos in the country. "Their guards are very good," Gottfried noted. "Zimmerman and Bowers are as good as any we've faced. They're quick and they can score in different ways. With those two outside and Austin around the basket, (State is) tough to defend.
"Bowers is basically as good an off guard as there is in the conference, and Zimmerman is as athletic and quick a point guard as we'll see all season long."
Back in January Mississippi State was the squad viewed as underachievers, with Bama fans talking about a Final Four. Now the Bulldogs are listed 20th in both polls, while the Tide is unranked. "State is definitely a better team now," Gottfried said. "But their early 0-3 (conference) record had more to do with their schedule than with their team. They've been very good all year from the opening gun."
Alabama took a tough 76-71 win last Saturday over Tennessee in Knoxville, while State lost by eight points at Kentucky. But Gottfried points out that there is no shame in playing well but losing to the Wildcats in Rupp Arena. "State is as talented and athletic as anybody," he said. "They've got a lot of offensive weapons, with different guys that can score. We're getting them tonight when they're playing well."
Last Saturday's win over the Volunteers got the road monkey off Bama's back, but the challenge now is to find a way to transfer that momentum to Starkville. "Our guys were determined to play well at Tennessee," Gottfried related. "We've got to have that same mindset (tonight). At the start of Saturday's game we had guys step up and make shots. I liked how we played offensively. But every team and every game in the SEC is a difficult challenge.
"There are no guarantees, but certainly we feel better now than we did a few games back."