Alabama basketball is gearing up to enter an absolute gauntlet of a stretch in its non-conference schedule. This three week period could see the Crimson Tide play as many as five opponents currently ranked in the AP top-25, including three that are listed in the top-six.
Alabama kicks off this marathon with the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland, Oregon. The Tide is slated to play Tom Izzo’s 12th ranked Michigan State Spartans in the event’s opening round.
Alabama Basketball Opponent Preview: Michigan State
Michigan State’s veteran-laden team plays well as a unit, and has looked like a formidable team despite not possessing the overwhelming talent of vintage Izzo teams. The Spartans are 3-1 and have already played a brutal schedule and gained tons of valuable close-game experience.
MSU beat Northern Arizona 73-55 to open their season before playing back-to-back top five teams.
First, they took on the then-no. 2 ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs in the Armed Forces Classic and lost by a single point, dropping a 64-63 decision on the boat. Just four days later, Michigan State took the court in another high-profile game against an elite opponent. The Spartans kicked off the Champions Classic with a double-overtime upset of then-no. 4 Kentucky. MSU topped the Wildcats of the SEC by a score of 86-77.
In a prime letdown spot, Izzo’s squad turned around and handled another high-quality team in Villanova. In a gritty, hard-fought game between two of the nation’s brand-name programs, Michigan State edged Nova 73-71. Both teams have blue-collar personalities and are perennially among college basketball’s most disciplined teams, so it was a battle throughout. Villanova was missing two key players in the contest, but it didn’t take away from the quality of the matchup.
Michigan State’s starting five is composed entirely of upperclassmen, and has been one of the top lineups in the country thus far. Lead guards AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker spearhead the attack, as both are elite passers and more-than-capable scorers. Walker is a former transfer from Northeastern University and has become a key piece in his second season in East Lansing. He is averaging 13.5 points and 4.8 assists per game and is coming off a 22-point outing against Villanova. In his career, Walker has 80 starts, over 1,000 points, and has shot over 38 percent from the three-point line.
AJ Hoggard is the bigger of the two guards at 6’3” and 220 pounds. The junior has proven to be a triple-double threat, and is currently averaging 9.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and an absurd 8.3 assists per game. Hoggard is not much of a shooter, but his physicality and court vision make him a difference-maker. He posted 13 points, 8 rebounds, and 10 assists against Villanova.
Seniors Joey Hauser and Malik Hall give Michigan State an impressive duo on the wing. Hauser, a former Marquette transfer, is a great shooter and possesses good size at 6’9” and 220 pounds. Hauser currently leads the Spartans with 14.0 points per game and is shooting 50 percent from the three-point line. He has always been a consistent marksman, shooting at a 40-percent clip from beyond the arc in his career.
Malik Hall seems like he has been around forever, but only became a regular starter this season. He is averaging 12.0 points and 5.3 rebounds per game for the Spartans. Hall scored 20 points and made some clutch baskets in Michigan State’s overtime win over Kentucky.
Junior center Mady Sissoko has been a huge energy guy for Michigan State this season, and his presence in the post makes this a complete team. He is averaging 8.8 points and a team-high 6.5 rebounds while bringing a physical edge to the lineup. He has been a lob threat thus far, but will be challenged by the sheer size and athleticism of Alabama basketball.
Sophomore Jaden Akins has been notable as a sixth man, and as the third guard in MSU’s backcourt. He has not shot the ball well this season, but is a talented player nonetheless.
Win or lose, this should be an excellent test for an Alabama basketball team that hasn’t played a high-major opponent yet. The Crimson Tide have shown what could be a high ceiling, with elite rebounding capability and flashes of shooting potential.
The Phil Knight Invitational could be the first glimpse at what this team is really made of, and it all starts against the Michigan State Spartans.