*The teams have played two common opponents. Both lost, at home, to Clemson (MSU 84-82, Alabama 87-61); and State beat Georgia at home 60-49 while the Tide lost in Athens 61-54.
*If there is one statistic that these two teams compare most closely in, it is…free throw shooting, or the lack thereof. Mississippi State ranks last in SEC accuracy at the line at 55.1% through three conference games; the Crimson Tide is a tick better at 55.2%.
About the Crimson Tide: How much difference can one missing player make? When it is the SEC's most-experience point guard the difference between conference contender and simply struggling. Look at what the rest of Alabama's lineup is doing, insert Ronald Steele, and imagine what a complete Crimson Tide club would have been capable of. They already have perhaps the best all-around big man in the league, veteran scorers on the wings, and athletes all over the floor. While Steele recovers from pre-season knee surgery (he's reportedly back to practicing at last) freshman Pico Pickett has tried to fill the void at point and shown promise. His SEC-game stats are improved over pre-league averages in shooting, scoring, and assists. Old hand Brandon Hollinger started a couple of fall semester games but is better off-the-bench both distributing and shooting the longball. Sophs Mikhail Torrance and Justin Tubbs are getting double-digit minutes providing backcourt depth. Meanwhile senior Mykal Riley eases some of the strains on the guard roster by wing-ing it from baseline to mid-court. He's a tough one to cover and given a bit of space will stick the three-pointer at a 44% clip. But the core of this club is around the basket where Richard Hendrix rules. The stout junior is averaging a double-double for the year, the only SEC player who can claim such a status, and talk about consistency; Hendrix is shooting 63% for the season as a whole and in league play. It's probably a better game-plan to foul before the shot because he's only 54% at the stripe. Soph Demetrius Jemsison is lending a hand in the lane, but it's small forward Alonzo Gee playing big this year with eight boards-per. And he's another inside/out man with the medium and long jumpers that leave post-defenders a tough choice, whether to stay sagged on Hendrix or step out to cover. Even a casual scan of the numbers show Alabama has the hosses to defeat most anyone…if the play-making on the perimeter is there. And since they're assuredly not going oh-fer the SEC, somebody has got to be the first victim.
Projected Starting Lineups
ALABAMA: F Demetrius Jemison, SO 6-7 225, 5.2ppg, 4.8rpg, 13 blks; F Alonzo Gee, JR 6-6 215, 16.1ppg, 8.0rpg, 26 3ptrs; F Richard Hendrix, JR 6-8 265, 19.2ppg, 10.5ppg, 38 blks, 63.2%fgs; G Rico Pickett, FR 6-4 175, 6.6ppg, 3.8apg, 14 3ptrs; G/F Mykal Riley, SR 6-6 185, 13.5ppg, 4.5rpg, 49 3ptrs.
Top Alternates: G Brandon Hollinger, JR 5-11 170, 6.1ppg, 3.3apg, 22 3ptrs; G Mikhail Torrance, SO 6-4 185, 3.2ppg, 2.9apg; G Justin Tubbs, SO 6-2 175, 3.3ppg, 12 3ptrs.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: F Charles Rhodes, SR 6-8 245, 14.8ppg, 56.5%fgs, 6.7rpg, 19 blks; G/F Jamont Gordon, JR 6-4 230, 17.5ppg, 6.7rpg, 4.2apg, 27 3ptrs; C Jarvis Varnado, SO 6-9 210, 7.4ppg, 61.5% fgs, 8.8rpg, 93 blks; G Barry Stewart, SO 6-2 170, 11.8ppg, 4.5rpg, 3.4apg, 28 3ptrs; G Phil Turner, rFR 6-3 170, 5.7ppg, 3.4rpg, 17 3ptrs.
Top Alternates: F/C Brian Johnson, JR 6-9 245, 2.9ppg, 2.8rpg; G Riley Benock, 6-4 180, 2.1ppg, 1.0rpg; G Ravern Johnson, FR 6-7 175, 2.8ppg, 1.1rpg.
Injured: G Ben Hansbrough, SO 6-3 205, 9.8ppg, 3.9rpg, 2.8apg, 30 3ptrs.
How They Compare
Scoring: MSU 73.0ppg, ALA 76.8ppg
Scoring Defense: MSU 61.2ppg, ALA 72.3ppg
FG Shooting: MSU 46.1%, ALA 46.8%
FG Defense: MSU 35.5%, ALA 43.4%
3-Point Shooting: MSU 32.3%, ALA 36.4%
3-Point Attempts: MSU 21.1pg, ALA 19.6
Rebounding: MSU 42.4rpg, ALA 38.9rpg
Rebound Margin: MSU +7.0, ALA +4.1
Free Throw Shooting: MSU 60.9%, ALA 59.8%
Free Throw Attempts: MSU 21.4pg, ALA 18.7
Assists: MSU 13.9pg, ALA 16.3pg
Turnover Ratio: MSU -1.6, ALA +1.4
The Series: These next-state neighbors began playing roundball in 1913 and have met 177 times since, annually since 1945. Alabama has built a 110-67 lead in the series, and from 1973-87 won 22 of 28 meetings. Things have evened out more since then and since the 1996 season it's been 14-13 in favor of Alabama. The Crimson Tide is 70-13 against State on their home courts, and won the last five meetings in Tuscaloosa. Rick Stansbury is 10-9 against Alabama and Mark Gottfried both, with State taking the only meeting in their nine seasons in the SEC Tournament; for the 2002 championship.
Bulldog Notes: Mississippi State is the SEC's dominant defensive club so far, leading the league in scoring defense (61.2 points allowed), field goal defense (35.5%), blocked shots (9.0), and rebounding margin (+7.0) for the season to-date.
*But State's defensive numbers in SEC play are even more impressive: 50.7 points allowed, 27.7% shooting (number-two Arkansas is only 39.6%), and most of all blocked shots. State has rejected 41 shots in three conference contests; Alabama is a distant second with 14 blocks.
*However, the Bulldogs have their defensive flaws as well. They swat a lot but don't swipe many balls, meaning MSU ranks last in SEC turnover margin.
*After barely missing a ‘triple-double' in State's win over Georgia, sophomore C Jarvis Varnado got it done against Kentucky with 10 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 blocks. He became only the third Bulldog to record a ‘triple-double' joining Lawrence Roberts (2004-05) and teammate Jamont Gordon (last season). Varnado's was different though, as he got the third ‘double' with blocks where Roberts and Gordon used assists.
*Varnado did the triple-trick only ten days after getting his first college double-double!
*It is no coincidence that State has gone on a winning streak at the same time Varnado has taken center-stage. In this stretch the soph has averaged 9.9 points and 10.0 rebounds. In the preceding 10 games he averaged 5.6 points and 7.9 rebounds.
*Yet Varnado has become a scoring threat without forcing anything offensive. He has taken only 31 shots in the last four games and made 22 of them, 71% shooting. For the year Varnado is a 61.6% shooter, best on the roster, and only four games has been under break-even. Though, admittedly he doesn't push his luck and attempts only about five shots per contest.
*Give him credit for consistency if not accuracy at the free throw stripe. Varnado went into the Kentucky game shooting 40.5% at the line; in the game he was 4-of-10. But, he did stick some crucial one-pointers in the decisive final ‘quarter' of play. Those ten free throw tries were his career-most as UK wisely sent Varnado to the line intentionally.
*But few will complain about the occasional missed foul-shot, because Varnado more than makes up for it on the other end of the court denying baskets. He is the SEC's shot-blocking beast with 93 swats already, 5.47 per game, and also leads the NCAA as of now.
*Varnado's ten blocks against Kentucky matched his output against Georgia and Miami Fl. which had set the Mississippi State game record. He now holds the MSU marks for blocks as both a freshman (67) and as a sophomore barely halfway through the season. He has blocked a shot in 46 of 52 career games, and blocked two or more balls in 32 games.
*Only a year-and-a-half on the job, Varnado already ranks 5th on the career list with 160 blocks. And at this pace he's only a few series from catching Rickey Brown (163, 1977-80) for 4th. The career record is 249 by Erick Dampier (1994-96) in three years.
*The season blocks record also belongs to Dampier, 106 as a 1996 senior. Varnado is obviously on a pace, maybe in two games, to swat away that mark.
*Where Varnado has made another ‘jump' this year is in rebounding. After averaging 4.2 boards as a rookie, he is getting 8.8 rebounds midway of the soph season. Varnado had 146 rebounds all last year; he has 150 in 17 games this season.
*G Jamont Gordon's 24 points Tuesday was his seventh 20-point game of the season. He had eight 20-point games as a sophomore. And Gordon has scored double-digits in 73 of his 82 college games, and 16 of 17 this season.
*Gordon still put up double-digit shots in the Kentucky game, for the 15th time this season. The rest of the roster has taken ten or more field goal attempts 21 total times. But, Gordon was both more selective and efficient in this win by shooting 7-of-11 from the field.
*And after going 2-of-16 from the three-point arc in the preceding six wins, Gordon was 5-of-7 Wednesday to match his best rate of the year (5-of-7 against Loyola Marymount).
*Playing nearer the basket in the first two SEC games cut into Gordon's passing-opportunities with just three total assists. Wednesday though with the lineup revised by injuries he handed out five scoring passes.
*And suddenly he is following Varnado's example, with three blocked shots in the last four games. In fact, Gordon has 14 blocks this year to just 18 steals.
*But his rebounding pace has picked up, with 31 boards in the last four contests.
*And Gordon continues to scamper up the career lists in his third varsity season. He now stands 13th in points with 1,271 and top-ten status (1,307 points) is within sight. His 388 assists are 5th most at MSU. And Gordon just broke into the career top-twenty rebounders with 565, passing Gary Hooker's 564 (1976-78) for #20 place.
*Gordon is the only State starter who hasn't fouled-out of a game this year.
*After a three-game absence F/C Charles Rhodes returned for a dozen minutes against Georgia and re-turned the same ankle. But he came back for 30 minutes against Kentucky with 12 points and no fouls.
*Those dozen points jumped the senior from 26th to 24th in MSU career scoring with 1,120 points; passing both Red Stroud (1,116, 1961-63) and Tyrone Washington (1,119, 1996-99).
*The limited minutes Saturday snapped a seven-game streak of double-digit scoring for Rhodes. He has notched ten or more points in 12 of 14 games this year.
*Before his injury he had grabbed ten rebounds in consecutive games; since then Rhodes has six boards in two appearances. In his first three seasons Rhodes posted six double-doubles; he has four of them this year.
*The injury might have made Rhodes more selective, too, as in the two return games he is 9-of-13 shooting. This bumps his season-accuracy to 56.5%; and his career rate to 56.1%, which is tenth-best of any Bulldog regular on-record.
*But his senior-year free-throw shooting is just 57.9% so far, compared to his 70.7% rate of the previous three years.
*The three blocks in two games put Rhodes alone in 6th place on the career list with 120, having been surpassed by Varnado.
*One-third of Rhodes' career baskets have come on dunks. And with three more stuffs he will equal the MSU record of 149 by Erick Dampier.
*And Rhodes has not attempted a three-point basket since putting up two (missed) against UC-Irvine back on November 22.
*The three-point race between guards Barry Stewart and Ben Hansbrough is unchanged, as Hansbrough missed the Kentucky game with a broken finger in his left hand while Stewart went 0-of-5 at the arc. So Hansbrough still leads with 30 treys to Stewart's 28 this year.
*If Hansbrough has the season-lead, Stewart is still ahead for their short careers 96 to 77. Stewart is about to become the 11th Bulldog with 100 career three-balls.
*Stewart has gone into something of a January shooting slump, as he is 2-of-19 from the arc this month and 1-of-14 in SEC games.
*It's still early enough in the year that averages can swing wildly with just one game. Still, going 0-of-5 at the arc these last two home games means Stewart is shooting 30.1% on trey-tries on the home court, 35.1% away from The Hump.
*As State has gone ‘small' with the lineup, Stewart has found himself out on the point with the ball more often. He's used the situation to become a productive passer, with 30 assists in the last seven games. In the same span nominal ‘point guard' Gordon has 28 assists.
*And Stewart is actually the team's leader in court-time. His 34.0 minutes this season compares to the 24 he averaged off-the-bench as a freshman.
*Before his injury Hansbrough had made 11 treys in six wins and was a 36.8% shooter at the arc. His overall shooting was efficient as well, at 45.6%...best of any backcourt Bulldog in that span.
*Hansbrough continues a freshman trend; he's the most reliable free throw man on the team, at 79% this year, yet he doesn't get to the stripe often enough to be ranked by the SEC in that category. He had taken two stripe-shots in his last three games.
*Yet, Hansbrough has been going into the taller timber often of late. In his last four games he has 27 rebounds, and has raised his season-average to 4.0. Last year he notched 2.8 boards per-game. His eight rebounds against home-state squad Missouri was a career-best.
*And Hansbrough's assist/turnover rate is almost 2-to-1, at 45 scoring passes to 23 giveawys.
*Injuries have allowed redshirt freshman G Phil Turner to move into the starting lineup and expand his production. His scoring, which peaked with three double-digit games in the second half of December, has slipped to 7.3 points in SEC play. But, Turner has picked it up in other areas; such as rebounding with 34 boards in the last five games (9 against Georgia); as well as assists and blocks. *Turner has also been given plenty minutes as a starter, averaging 34.7 in three SEC outings.
*Turner has a dozen steals in State's winning streak; no teammate is in double-digits.
*The six Dogs who have started a game this year have accounted for 82.4% of the minutes-played.