Mississippi State is back in the Top 25, boasts the reigning SEC player of the week and has gotten plenty of rest.
In their first game in a week, Jarvis Varnado and the 23rd-ranked Bulldogs look to remain undefeated in SEC play as they visit struggling Alabama on Saturday.
This is Mississippi State’s first game since overcoming multiple double-digit deficits to beat Georgia 72-69 last Saturday.
Two days later, the Bulldogs (15-3, 3-0) returned to the AP poll and Varnado was named the conference’s player of the week after two more outstanding performances. Mississippi State started the season ranked 18th, but dropped out of the rankings after losing its season opener 88-74 to Rider on Nov. 13.
Coach Rick Stansbury’s team is the only one in the SEC West without at least two conference losses.
“I’m glad we are where we are, but it is only three games,” Stansbury said. “Everybody’s record is based on a lot like when you play who and where you play them. You really can’t worry about what other people are doing. Through 16 games, the team that can stay off the peak and off the valley, and stay right in the middle are the ones that win championships. It’s a long haul.”
With Varnado playing so well, the Bulldogs have every reason to be optimistic coming off a long break. He averaged 15.5 points, 13.0 rebounds and 8.0 blocks in two games last week.
The 6-foot-9 forward ranks second in the nation in blocks with 5.4 per game. He had two in the final two minutes last Saturday.
Phil Turner, a former starter, had 15 points, five rebounds and three steals. The junior has provided Mississippi State with a spark defensively off the bench, posting 1.4 steals a contest.
“Run, jump and go get steals. That’s how I like to play basketball,” Turner said. “I feel like that’s why I’m on this team.”
Varnado and Turner have helped the Bulldogs become the top defensive team in the SEC. They’re allowing an average of 61.2 points while holding opponents to 36.7 percent shooting.
Alabama’s struggles offensively have contributed to three straight losses. The Crimson Tide have been held under 60 points in each of their last two games, including a 63-56 loss to No. 8 Tennessee on Tuesday night.
Alabama (11-7, 1-3) is 1-3 against ranked opponents.
“I think there is a process that we have to go through to learn how to win these types of games,” coach Anthony Grant said. “It’s a tough way to learn by losing, but hopefully our guys will develop that resolve, get better and do the things we need to do to win.”
The Crimson Tide shot a season-worst 37.9 percent (22 for 58) versus the Volunteers, and leading scorer Mikhail Torrance was held to three points on 1-of-9 shooting. The senior guard is averaging 15.2 points and 5.2 assists.
Alabama forward JaMychal Green adds 15.0 points and a team-high 7.2 rebounds per game, but the sophomore has committed 13 turnovers during the three-game skid.
Freshman Tony Mitchell is coming off his first start in five games, joining Green in the frontcourt. He set carer highs with nine rebounds and five blocks while scoring 11 points.
“It doesn’t matter if I start or come off the bench, I just come in and bring it and play good defense,” Mitchell said.
The Bulldogs lead the series 111-71. They had won five straight before an 87-85 loss in double overtime Feb. 21.