by Knox Bardeen
The Mississippi State Bulldogs (7-7, 2-0 SEC) will host the Alabama Crimson Tide (9-6, 1-1 SEC) on Wednesday at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Miss. Tipoff is slated for 9 p.m. ET on CSS and the game will be called by Matt Stewart and Kyle Macy.
Mississippi State will enter the contest with a three-game winning streak and winner of four of its last five games. The Bulldogs have started Southeastern Conference play off with good momentum after ending non-conference play with a huge bang, beating New Orleans by 51 points.
"I thought we had really turned a corner as a ball club with the win against New Orleans," said first-year head coach Rick Ray on the SEC Men's Basketball Teleconference Monday. "Then to go out and win a game against South Carolina, then especially going on the road and winning at Georgia, I think our team is steadily improving."
Alabama split its first two SEC games, falling to a ranked Missouri team on the road and then coming from behind to beat Tennessee Saturday. But the Crimson Tide have only won three times since Dec. 1 (nine games) and will now face a tough Mississippi State defense.
"Their defense has been outstanding," said Alabama head coach Anthony Grant. "Their ability to take the other team’s strengths and then ability to use that defense to create offense for them, they’ve really been impressive watching the play."
Get used to Mississippi State's starting unit. None of the five projected starters for Wednesday are seniors, and three—Craig Sword, Trivante Bloodman and Gavin Ware—are underclassmen.
Starting 3-0 in the SEC isn't a common occurrence for the Bulldogs. In the last 20 years Mississippi State has won its first three conference games only four times—2010, 2009, 2008 and 1994.
Mississippi State's defense can be stifling. Eight times this season the Bulldogs have held opponents to fewer than 60 points. At home they're even better, allowing teams just 50.2 points per game.
Mississippi State freshman guard Craig Sword was named SEC Freshman of the Week Monday after scoring 18 points against South Carolina and 16 against Georgia. He also averaged two steals per game last week and 3.5 rebounds.
An amazing 71.2 percent of Mississippi State's scoring comes from underclassmen. Freshman account for 44.4 percent (393 points) of the scoring and sophomore's 26.8 percent (237 points).
Alabama freshman forward Devonta Pollard is averaging 9.5 points per game on the road, almost double his home average this season. Pollard is also a native Mississippian, which could have a big impact on his performance Wednesday.
Guards Trevor Releford and Trevor Lacey make up 44 percent of Alabama's scoring. Releford is averaging 16.3 points per game and Lacey 12.5.
Points may come at a premium Wednesday as Alabama's defense has allowed just 60.9 points per game this season. Mississippi State allows just 62.5 points per game.
Alabama should not feel safe with the lead, not at any point in the game until the final buzzer. In three of their six losses, the Crimson Tide have held a lead in the final 11 minutes of the game.
Look for Crimson Tide junior center Moussa Gueye to be a force on the boards. Coming off the bench in each of the last three games, Gueye has grabbed 19 rebounds and is averaging a rebound every 2.6 minutes of play in that three-game span.