TUSCALOOSA, Alabama – Alabama has ranked its highest in the polls since 2002. With 11 games remaining in the regular season, the Crimson Tide is 17-2 (7-0 SEK) two wins away from making last year’s standings and conference totals win.
More than halfway through the season, amid huge successes, head coach Nate Oats is still using an 11-man rotation at times, and with Nimari Burnett returning from injury, the starting lineup could change yet again.
Because of all of this, jealousy or complacency might creep in, but that’s not how Oats sees it when the Crimson Tide return home to Coleman Coliseum on Wednesday night to take on a struggling Mississippi State (12-7, 1-6 SEC) team.
“We talked about not getting complacent and how last year’s team might have fared after we had some early wins outside of the conference,” Oats said at Tuesday’s press conference. “But I think this group is quite mature – the maturity, the professionalism, the depth of the team, all of that helps.
“Guys are mature and understand what is at stake. We’re playing for a #1 spot in the NCAA tournament. We’re playing for an SEC championship. You can’t afford to be disappointed. If you want to play your best basketball in March, you have to get better with every game.”
For example, at practice Tuesday, Oats said freshman Rylan Griffen told Burnett he wanted to be like him on defense. Griffen had his best 3-point shooting performance in Saturday’s win against Missouri, but after the game, Oats said he wants the freshman to keep improving on defense to reach his full potential. Burnett is known as one of the best defenders on the team and an example for Griffen to emulate.
“Guys challenge each other in practice every day,” Oats said. “We have 11 guys who can all really play. Difficult to split minutes between 11 guys so there is competition and it’s probably the best I’ve seen. It’s a competition while you’re still really working on your teammates, too.”
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Having depth is a good issue for a coach, but Oats spoke about the challenges of managing minutes for 11 players. But ultimately the players are happy when the team keeps winning.
And winning is all Alabama has seen lately. It has been over a month since the Crimson Tide lost a game and the team is currently on an eight-game winning streak, with all eight wins in double digits.
The first matchup against Mississippi State in Starkville began a streak of SEC wins on December 28, and at just 11 points, it was actually the smallest margin for Alabama during that streak. Oats isn’t necessarily worried about how many points the Crimson Tide will win, but he does want his team to play better, especially on defense, than they did in the first clash with the Bulldogs.
Alabama hosts Mississippi State at 8 p.m. Wednesday night on SEC Network as the Crimson Tide looks to continue that winning streak and stay on course for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
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