Round 2 with the Bulldogs takes place on Saturday at 1:30 PM. SEC Network once again does the honors for television. The game has been announced as another sell-out for the program this season (though it remains to be seen if actual human bodies will show up to claim those seats). Both teams enter this game with some momentum. Alabama of course has won five straight and six of their last seven, including back-to-back road wins at Florida and LSU, which has accounted for the best stretch of basketball we've seen this program play in years. Mississippi State is coming off a thrilling comeback victory at home against Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs were down 17 with 14 minutes left in the game before putting together a fantastic run that ended with a buzzer beating 3 pointer by freshman Quinndary Weatherspoon.
Gavin Ware (Sr. 6'9, 260 lbs) had quite the performance in his last game vs Alabama with a career high of 28 points. Alabama had no answer for him, and his performance alone kept Mississippi State in the game when our guys had opportunities to pull away in the 2nd half. It will be interesting to see how the Bama coaches game plan for him this time around.
Quinndary Weatherspoon (Fr. 6'4, 202 lbs) was a four star recruit coming out of high school, and was arguably the highest rated recruit that Rick Ray signed during his tenure. When top 10 recruit Malik Newman signed with Mississippi State, Weatherspoon was overlooked coming into the season; however, it's been Weatherspoon that arguably has had the better freshman campaign. Weatherspoon (11.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.2 spg) and Newman (12.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.0 apg) will both be considered for the All-Freshman team, and are only going to get better as their careers progress. If they get off to a good start tomorrow, Alabama could be in for a real fight. Another guard I will spotlight is I.J. Ready (Jr. 5'11, 170). I've been impressed with Ready when I've had the opportunity to watch Mississippi State. He's quick, distributes the ball (4.2 apg), protects the ball (1.4 topg), and has improved on offense (in three seasons his scoring average has improved from 5.9 to 9.8).
Ware is a focal point inside, but I think the Alabama coaches are more concerned with the talent State has at the guard positions. Howland has gone with a smaller line-up so he can have his five best players on the floor. The surprise in the first game is that guys like Art, Riley and even Mike were effectively able to defend State's smaller, quicker line-up. That will be the challenge once again, while inside the Bama big men will have to play more physical with Ware and use their length to disrupt him. Easier said than done, but Jimmie is playing much better in recent games, and he should be fired up for the challenge after Ware toyed with him in Starkville.
These three remaining home games for Alabama are crucial to the team's NCAA hopes. All three opponents in those games are triple digit RPI teams. A loss to one of them could undo much of what Alabama has accomplished to this point. And Mississippi State is very capable of beating Alabama. They enter this game with a record of 11-14, but 8 of those losses were by 6 points or less. And if you just compare the raw physical talent of each roster, one could make a valid argument that State is the slightly more talented team. Their biggest problem has not been talent so much as the need to rely so heavily on freshmen to produce, and a veteran group that just never established a winning culture under Rick Ray, and has struggled in that regard in Howland's first season. Nevertheless, you can see the potential in this team when you watch them. If there's a team currently near the bottom of the standings that could make trouble for teams in the final two weeks of the season and beyond in Nashville, Mississippi State may just be that team.