*State is now 3-4 in televised games this season, having won their last three times on the tube.
*In State's three wins over Alabama last season, C Jarvis Varnado was 9-of-13 shoting.
About the Crimson Tide: When voters tabbed Alabama as their pre-season pick to win the Division, the probable reaction by Mark Gottfried was ‘thanks a bunch.' Because even by this year's remarkably wild Western standards, there were lots of questions for the Crimson Tide to answer; who would replace Richard Hendrix in the middle, would Ron Steele's repaired knees be up to speed, how good really were some touted signees? Well, one weekend into conference play most of the answers are trending positively. And if nobody has entirely filled that big void in the middle a series of frontcourt men are taking turns trying with, so far, winning results. Certainly knocking off LSU in the league opener was a strong first step as, despite being out-shot and out-rebounded, the Tide made plays when it mattered most. Even devout Tide-haters have to tip their hat to Steele, who has overcome two knee operations and a long layoff to make his senior season matter. And as of this writing there are questions about his status for Wednesday with a foot problem. No, he's not the same all-star triggerman of his rookie and soph seasons. Still Steele is showing some old flashes, scoring almost 13 points-per and leading his team in treys. And one thing hasn't changed; don't send this guy to the stripe where he's 87% good for his career and just went a month without a miss. Steele wasn't at his best against LSU, 2-of-10 and 1-of-6 arc, but backcourt mates were able to pick up the scoring slack...and might have to do even more if he can't go tonight. Senior Alonzo Gee and soph Senario Hillman are combining for around 29 points a night and shooting just about identical clips. In fact both have hit nine three-balls, though that's not really what they do best. Especially Gee, a physical wingman happy crashing the lane for short shots and hard rebounds. He has 11 double-doubles this winter already, and Alabama is 10-1 when he doubles-up. Gee, who seems to have signed when Wimp Sanderson was wearing plaid, is about to make his 81st consecutive start. Hillman settled for backup work as a rookie, but now starting he's a backcourt force and burned LSU for 24 points…including Alabama's last nine markers. His three-point rate (9 of 46 so far) can only improve, but his defense is already stout as Hillman sets the Tide's tone on this end. The guards have to guard hard, because post play is still a work in progress and returning 32-game starter PF Demetrius Jemison has opened just once this year and didn't play Saturday at all. His place has been taken by the state's Mr. Basketball of 2008, with rookie JaMychal Green opening all 15 games. The numbers are good, or were until LSU held him scoreless from the field and to four boards in 31 minutes. Still his 12.5 point, six rebound rate over the holidays when he was SEC Player of the Week show what Green can do when he gets comfy in SEC combat. The real story there is Green was Alabama's first league POTW since 2006, reflecting a recent slide in program prowess. And coming off a 17-16 year and 5-11 (5th West) league mark the rumbling in Tuscaloosa is louder these days. Still Gottfried, only the fourth Tide coach to win 200 games, has survived such cycles before. And this still-melding squad seems to have the basics down as only five foes have topped 40% shooting against them. They just need guys to hit a few more long shots and take the pressure off young post personnel for Alabama to have the forecasted say in how this year's West is won.
Projected Starting Lineups
ALABAMA: F JaMychal Green, FR 6-9 225, 8.4ppg, 6.8rpg, 25blks; F Justin Knox, SO 6-9 235, 5.4ppg, 5.3rpg; G/F Alonzo Gee, SR 6-6 220, 14.5ppg, 7.7rpg, 9 3ptrs; G Senario Hillman, SO 6-1 188, 14.3ppg, 3.4rpg, 9 3ptrs; PG Ronald Steele, SR 6-3 190, 12.9ppg, 3.7apg, 37 3ptrs.
Top Backups: G Andrew Steele, FR 6-3 190, 3.3ppg, 2.3rpg; F Yamene Coleman, JR 6-9 235, 4.4ppg, 4.8rpg; G Brandon Hollinger, SR 5-11 165, 2.5ppg, 7 3ptrs.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: F Ravern Johnson SO 6-7 175, 12.1ppg, 3.9rpg, 37 3pts; G/F Phil Turner SO 6-3 170, 6.6ppg, 3.6rpg, 12 3pts; C Jarvis Varnado JR 6-9 210, 13.0ppg, 9.8rpg, 61%fgs, 87 blks; G Dee Bost FR 6-2 170, 9.8ppg, 4.3asts, 22 3pts; G Barry Stewart JR 6-3 170, 11.0ppg, 3.4rpg, 27 3pts.
Top Backups: F Romero Osby FR 6-8 230, 6.4ppg, 3.6rpg; G Riley Benock SO 6-4 180, 2.9ppg, 12 3ptrs; C Elgin Bailey, SO 6-8 254, 4.9ppg, 2.9rpg, 21blks.
How They Compare:
Scoring: MSU 75.4ppg, ALA 72.5ppg
Scoring Defense: MSU 64.1ppg, ALA 63.6ppg
FG Shooting: MSU 46.4%, ALA 43.8%
FG Defense: MSU 36.3%, ALA 38.5%
3-Point Shooting: MSU 37.4%, ALA 29.6%
3-Point Attempts: MSU 19.9pg, ALA 16.7pg
Rebounding: MSU 40.2rpg, ALA 40.9rpg
Rebound Margin: MSU +1.9, ALA 3.7
Free Throw Shooting: MSU 69.1%, ALA 68.2%
Free Throw Attempts: MSU 23.4pg, ALA 21.8pg
Turnovers: MSU 15.8pg, ALA 13.3pg
The Series: Despite losing the last four meetings, including most recently a tornado-interrupted, overtime contest in the SEC Tournament, Alabama still holds a firm 110-70 lead in the state-line series. The Bulldogs do have a 53-34 advantage in home games, and are 19-14 in Humphrey Coliseum against the Tide. Rick Stansbury is 13-9 against Alabama, while Mark Gottfried is 9-13 against State.
Bulldog Notes: So far there is one perfect indicator for Bulldog games. If State leads at halftime they win, as has been the case in all 11 victories. Whereas in all five losses they have trailed at the break.
*And, in all 11 wins this year the Bulldogs have shot better than 40%. They did hit 40% even in the loss to Texas Tech, and in the other four setbacks were under that mark.
*In the last five games, for that matter their last six wins, the Dogs have not given up 70 points to the opponents. Only Cincinnati's 75 points back on Dec. 18 interrupt this strong defensive stretch, and even in the San Diego loss State allowed just 64 points in 45 game minutes.
*By contrast State is 9-1 when scoring 70 or more points.
*The best shooting State's defense has allowed so far is 44.6% to Cincinnati. For the year to-date the Dogs are holding opponents to 36.3% accuracy; this after MSU set the modern SEC record for field goal defense last year at 37.0%. It's a good sign that Arkansas, the first league foe, mustered just 36% accuracy against the Dog defense.
*Also, the Hogs were just 3-of-22 at the arc on their own court. That's worse—or from MSU's defensive standpoint, better—than how the Dogs are guarding the three this year, under 32%.
*By contrast the Bulldogs have been scorching nets from long distance over the last two weeks. In this three-win streak State is a combined 36-of-74, or 49%, on trey-tries. That's even better than the 30-of-68 tear MSU was on in the first three games of the season. So far only Florida has more treys this year than the Dogs.
*And State has made more shots from the arc in these games than at the stripe, with just 30 free throws (45 attempts).
*Courting with a smaller lineup of four guard-type bodies has had an impact on the boards, but not as serious as perhaps feared. State still ranks in the top-half of the SEC in rebounding, and has trailed foes only 125-115 total in the last three wins. In fact they have been edged on the boards in five of the last seven games. Not by a lot, but considering the prowess MSU has shown in grabbing misses over the Stansbury years it's an object of this coach's concern.
*But a shorter tip-off squad hasn't kept State from maintaining the league lead in blocks. In fact with 140 swats through 16 games the Dogs are on pace to break their own SEC season record of 267 blocks (34 games) last season. This isn't just because State has the league's best shot-swatter in Jarvis Varnado, either; backup center Elgin Bailey is tied for 8th in SEC blocks this week.
*After settling for a ‘supporting role' on offense in MSU's romps over Houston and WKU, Varnado reasserted himself at that end against Arkansas with 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting. In those previous two games he took just 10 total shots. But in December, the junior center was an offensive beast with four 20-point performances and five total double-digit games.
*Varnado ranks third in SEC shooting this week with 61.4% accuracy for the season. And in December he hit 75.5% of his shots.
*Varnado's 13.0-point average this year is better than his first two seasons (5.0 freshman, 7.9 sophomore) combined.
*The fifth SEC player, and first Bulldog, ever to block 300 shots, Varnado is up to 311 swats for his three seasons. He needs seven more to match fourth-place, and the all-time SEC mark of 412 (Shaquille O'Neal in three seasons) isn't that far over the career horizon.
*More likely is that Varnado breaks the SEC season mark here in 2009. He tied that record (also by O'Neal, 1992) with 157 last winter. Varnado is up to 87 this year, a 5.4 pace that is better than his 4.6 rate of last season.
*Varnado has blocked a shot in 78 of 85 career games, and in the last 33-straight contests.
*In the last two games Varnado has 10 and 9 rebounds. He is first in this week's SEC stats for defensive boards, and second overall at 9.8 per-game.
*Varnado has made his last six-straight free throws (2-of-2 in all the last three games) and 20-of-25 in the last five games. He's up to 65% at the stripe this season, compared to 53% and 50% shooting his first two years.
*Junior G Barry Stewart has regained his shooting eye in time for SEC play. In the last two games he has hit 11-of-17 shots, and gone 7-of-10 at the arc. In the previous ten games Stewart struggled with 27-of-97 shooting overall.
*After going 5-of-27 at the arc in December, Stewart has made 9-of-15 in January games.
*With 17 points at Arkansas, and four double-digit performances in the last five games, Stewart just passed the 900-plateau for his career. He's up to 909 in three seasons now.
*With 157 career treys, Stewart is a good game from catching and passing Winsome Frazier (2002-05) for sixth place on the MSU career list.
*The 35 minutes Stewart played at Arkansas was just about what he averaged as a soph in league play. Stewart never played less than 30 minutes in any SEC or post-season game last season.
*It was quite the anomaly when PG Dee Bost had no assists in a 95-point MSU night against Western Kentucky. But the rookie made up for that with five scoring passes at Arkansas, which keeps him 3rd this week in SEC assists rate. His 69 assists so far tie for 6th among all MSU freshmen, even with the legendary Ray White (1976, 26 games). With his first assist Wednesday Bost moves into the freshman top-five.
*Play-making hasn't come at the expense of shot-taking for Bost. He limited his attempts the second half of December, but has come on fast since and fired up 23 tries in the last two games making 13. And he was 5-of-10 from the arc the past week.
*Bost has scored ten or more points in seven of his 16 games, all starts.
*By averaging 17.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and hitting five treys, Bost earned SEC Freshman of the Week for the first such January period.
*The point guard has done his duty chasing down rebounds, too, with 30 boards in the last seven games.
*Hopefully his first SEC game of the soph season was an aberration for G/F Ravern Johnson as he tallied just six points, on 2-of-8 shooting (2-of-6 on treys). Because in the previous six games he averaged 13.5 points including a 26-point outburst against WKU. In the four games before SEC season, Johnson was 23-of-45 shooting and 10-of-23 on treys.
*His 6-of-7 effort at the arc in the WKU game set a MSU game record for long-range accuracy at 85.7%. He was 9-of-10 overall that night.
*The skinny soph has grabbed at least one rebound in all 16 games this season, and he's up to 62 for the season. In his rookie year he had just 30 boards.
*Johnson didn't go to the stripe in Fayetteville. He's made 12 of his last 15 free throw tries and is at 80% even for the season.
*Soph G Phil Turner has thrived since moving into the starting lineup on December 13. In the seven games since he's averaged 9.4 points compared to 4.3 as a backup.
*As a starter Turner has made 23 of his 45 shots, 51%. And he's far better shooting inside the arc, 16-of-22 or 73%, in this stretch.
*All last season Turner got 84 rebounds; he's up to 57 this season just over half-way through.
*Freshman F Romero Osby made only one shot at Arkansas, though it was a dramatic one—a running dunk before halftime that made most highlight reviews. That kept the rookie's run of scoring something in every game this season alive. The one game Osby didn't make a basket, Texas Tech, he did knock down seven free throws.
*Osby also missed his lone trey-try at Fayetteville and is 5-of-17 at the arc for the year.
*The freshman is getting up to rebounding speed, though, with 14 boards in the last three games.
*Meanwhile classmate G Riley Benock has hit a three in each of his January games.
*Soph center Elgin Bailey has scored a basket in all but one game this season, against St. Bonaventure. And in the last three games he's had two rebounds each time.
*Senior C Brian Johnson was held out of the Arkansas game. Still getting up to speed after fall foot and ankle issues, he was 3-of-4 shooting in the first two January games and played 14 total minutes.