Perhaps a whole lot. In the second year under Coach Anthony Grant, the Crimson Tide has been the SEC's so-far surprise story by not only leading the West but the overall conference standings. They also own perhaps the biggest single SEC success of January with a home win over Kentucky. Of more meaning to Mississippi State though is what happened on opening day of this conference campaign when Alabama beat the Bulldogs 75-57 in Humphrey Coliseum.
Thus State players have plenty to be won this week, as well as some books to be balanced.
"It'd be real crucial," Bost said. "They beat us here on our home court so it's important for us to go get a win on their home court."
Senior guard Riley Benock agrees to some extent about settling a score. "But right now it's at a point where every game is critical, regardless," he said, referring to Mississippi State ambitions to still make a run at the Division crown as well as scramble back into the post-season picture. "I know they're at the top of the West but it's not a matter of getting a split. We need to win games. We have to approach all of them the same."
Along that line, if the Bulldogs can perform in upcoming games with the same poise and production as they did the last time out the wins will keep coming. For a very obvious reason. "We're better than we were," Coach Rick Stansbury said. Not only that but continuing to improve, albeit in fits and starts over the course of a dramatic and at times traumatic January. If not always successful, at least the State squad at the end of the month is trending in a winning direction.
"We're much better," Lewis said. "We improve each day in practice, work hard to get better. I feel we're much better than we were, we've come together as one where we were separated."
It's worth recalling that back on January 8, when Alabama came to town, the MSU roster was un-separated at last. That was the date Bost was activated after a full semester's suspension, and center Renardo Sidney returned from a team-enforced timeout. Bost managed 14 points and five assists in the return, but was far from SEC-sharp and even missed free throws…something he hasn't done much of since. Sidney was even less an offensive factor though his presence in the post did give the Tide some early trouble.
Now the inside and outside stars are meshing with the rest of the lineup and have a quality win in the book, after Bost and Sidney combined for 40 points in beating Florida. So safe to say State is better equipped for a rematch. By the same token Alabama has been able to take the same approach all month and keep the wins coming even as opponents break down every aspect.
Stansbury knows what to expect. "They're athletic, number one. (Tony) Mitchell, (Chris) Hines; Trevor Releford the point guard is a good freshman athlete. Then, you've got Green." As in JaMychal Green of course, the centerpiece of Alabama's offense and defense alike at 15.8 points and 7.5 rebounds. He put up a 16/11 afternoon against State in round-one, though initially he was frustrated by Sidney's sizable presence around the goal.
But Green adapted, stepped out to the foul line, and started taking and making jumpshots. "That wasn't a surprise," Stansbury said. "Probably stepping out and making as many as he did was a surprise." Green's shooting changed the game entirely, though a team-best 17 points from Releford probably was a surprise at the time. Not now. And while he only nets five points a night Stansbury sees the physical frontcourt work of Hines as key to why the Tide just keeps winning in their patient, no-margin manner.
"Hines isn't talked about enough, he stands for what they're doing making a lot of tough plays." At least now MSU players know what their coaches did, and they are preparing for Green. Redshirting forward Arnett Moultrie has taken on that role in practices this week showing Sidney, or as likely forward Kodi Augustus, how to defend the Tide leader.
Individually. Because as Bost said, "We're going to start in man." And, he implies, stay in that much more familiar scheme. For a variety of early-SEC-season reasons Stansbury applied zone defending to a degree rarely seen over his MSU career. It worked well enough at Ole Miss and in stretches of other games, and kept Sidney on the court at least a few more minutes…though the sophomore center has still managed to foul out twice in SEC action.
Yet this remains a roster with a man-up mentality, per Bost, so "That's what we're playing now, no more zone, teams shoot you out of the zone." Except, Alabama is not particularly fond of outside shooting; Charvez Davis is the leading gunner but still nets just 9.2 points on average. So maybe the zone will be needed Wednesday after all.
Of more Bulldog interest is how to take the Tide out of their comfort zone, so to speak. Alabama is both the most efficient defensive team in the league allowing under 37% shooting, and the most patient in a high-percentage offense. State players won't mind if the Tide takes their time putting up a shot…but as for the other end, they want to force another tempo. "We want to push every time we can," Stansbury said. Easier said than done, of course.
"It's going to be a grind out game, they're going to make it an ugly game," said the coach. Bost, now he has other ideas how to change both the style and the score this second time-around.
"When we played the first game nobody made shots. If we can get up and down that's perfect because they don't like to run too much. As long as we're making shots, we'll be fine."
It will also help if backup Bulldogs make some shots. State's bench did not manage a single point against Florida (in fact all scoring came from just four starters with Benock blanked as well). Stansbury jokes that he's had games where all 14 players got on the scoreboard and MSU lost, but he agrees more offense is needed from substitutes. Lewis is of the same mind, though he also says the backups can't try to do too much and get out of the gameplan.
"The bench, we come in and do what we can; play hard, give effort all the time," said Lewis. "Sometimes we're up and down but I feel we're doing better. That's just how the bench is, sometimes. I work on my offense. But Coach tells me go crash the glass."
State has had mixed results in the first two SEC road trips, winning at Ole Miss and losing at Georgia. This third venture away from home is the most important one yet, and given how the schedule sets up afterwards a Wednesday win could really put the Bulldogs back on a fast Division track. At the same time Alabama is unbeaten at home and, based on latest West standings, can almost cement their place atop the Division with a sweep of State.
Given the other fact, how the West is regarded so poorly in NCAA Tournament projections, a loss this time could do more long-term damage than a win do either side good. "We need to keep it going, we don't need to take a step back," Lewis said.
"I don't know about every else, but if we can get this win it will help us," Bost said. "And after we take care of this game just win and it will take care of itself."