No. 21 Mississippi State will face its toughest test to date when it hosts No. 8 Alabama in both teams’ Southeastern Conference opener on Wednesday in Starkville, Miss.
The Bulldogs (11-1) are off to their best start since opening the 2003-04 season 13-0 en route to winning the SEC West Division’s regular-season title, but they have yet to play a ranked team.
Playing ranked teams is nothing new to the Crimson Tide (10-2), who are off to their best start through 12 games since going 11-1 to open the 2006-07 season.
Alabama has played five ranked opponents, beating then-No. 1 North Carolina, then-No. 1 Houston and then-No. 12 Michigan State. Alabama’s losses are to then-No. 20 UConn, which is now ranked second nationally and undefeated, and then-No. 15 Gonzaga.
“We’ve got the ability to play with anybody in the country. We’ve got a lot of growth yet to do,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said.
“We’ve got to get more consistency with both our effort on the defensive end and taking care of the ball on offense because it’s gonna be some big games in the SEC. Whether it’s a home game or a road game, I think we’ve proven to ourselves we’re capable of winning any game we play in the SEC, but we’re also capable of losing any game we play.”
In its last game, Mississippi State led Drake 31-23 at halftime before getting outscored 35-21 in the second half of a 58-52 loss in The Battle in the Vault event on Dec. 20 in Lincoln, Neb.
Eric Reed Jr., who scored all 11 of his points in the first half, was the only Bulldog who finished the game in double figures. Tolu Smith, Dashawn Davis and KeShawn Murphy each added nine points.
“Folks that have been watching us know we haven’t been playing our best,” Mississippi State first-year coach Chris Jans said. “I was hoping that we would regroup against a very good Drake team. I know that Drake had their attention.
“They knew the preseason predictions in the Valley and the NCAA Tournament win last year and all the returnees. So it wasn’t like our guys overlooked them by any stretch of the imagination at all.”
Smith averages a team-high 15.6 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, while D.J. Jeffries, who was held to three points on 1-for-7 shooting from the field against Drake, averages 9.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. Davis averages 9.2 points and a team-high 2.8 assists per game.
Alabama rebounded from a 100-90 loss to Gonzaga on Dec. 17 with an 84-64 victory over visiting Jackson State three days later.
Mark Sears scored 15 points, all in the second half, while Noah Gurley added 16 points and five rebounds for Alabama.
Brandon Miller, who averages a team-high 19.3 points per game, chipped in 10 points and a season-high 14 rebounds, with Charles Bediako finishing with 10 points and nine rebounds. Jahvon Quinerly had eight points and five assists.
Noah Clowney, the team’s leading rebounder (8.8 rebounds per game) and third-leading scorer (9.5 points per game), missed the game due to illness, but he’s expected to play against Mississippi State.
The teams split a pair of games last season, with the Bulldogs winning 78-76 in Starkville on Jan. 15 before the Crimson Tide beat Mississippi State 80-75 on Feb. 16 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
–Field Level Media