What you need to know ahead of No. 18 Missouri men's basketball vs. No. 10 Alabama

Eric Blum
Columbia Daily Tribune
Missouri's Dru Smith (12) pulls down a rebound in front of Kentucky's Brandon Boston Jr., left, during a game Wednesday at Mizzou Arena.

After weeks of waiting, the high-stakes matchup has arrived.

No. 18 Missouri men's basketball looks to make its latest statement when No. 10 Alabama comes to Mizzou Arena for a Saturday matinee.

The Tigers are securely pegged into the NCAA Tournament field and in the midst of their best season under coach Cuonzo Martin.

The Crimson Tide haven't seen their current run of form in nearly 30 years, with a 15-4 overall mark, including 10-0 in the SEC. ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi on Friday placed Alabama as a projected No. 1 seed in March Madness.

Missouri enters Saturday 12-3 overall and 5-3 in the SEC, good enough for second place in the league standings.

More:Five things we learned in No. 18 Mizzou basketball's 75-70 victory over Kentucky

This is the only regular-season matchup between the teams, following two memorable meetings last season. On Jan. 18, 2020, the Tigers finished 31 of 31 on free throws and still lost to the Crimson Tide by 14. Then, on March 7, Alabama came to Mizzou Arena for what would end up being both teams' final game of the season, a 69-50 MU victory.

Nearly 11 months removed from that game, both teams have over-delivered compared to external expectations for the 2020-21 season — with Alabama being picked sixth in the SEC preseason poll and Missouri being voted 10th. 

Saturday's Tigers vs. Crimson Tide tipoff is slated for 11 a.m. on ESPN and will be radio broadcast on KTGR (105.1 FM).

Here’s a closer look at the Missouri vs. Alabama matchup. The following are projected lineups, players to watch, keys to the game and a score prediction:

Who are the projected Missouri starters?

Dru Smith, Xavier Pinson, Jeremiah Tilmon, Kobe Brown, Javon Pickett 

Who are the projected Alabama starters?

Alex Reese, Herb Jones, Joshua Primo, Jaden Shackleford, John Petty Jr.

Missouri player to watch

Since Missouri restarted its season following a week-long pause due to COVID-19 protocols last month, the Tigers are 5-1.

Dru Smith arguably has been the Tigers' best player. 

Smith has scored in double figures in all six games and had 18 points or more in half. His 26-point performance in Wednesday's win over Kentucky topped them all.

The Evansville, Indiana, native has played in plenty of big games and won't be affected by the national television spotlight.

For the Tigers to become the first SEC team to beat Alabama this season, Smith doesn't need to put in a Herculean effort. But he must continue his impressive form of play. 

Smith's game clashes with how Alabama likes to operate on both sides of the ball.

Alabama forwards Darius Miles (12) and Herb Jones (1) celebrate a dunk by teammate Alex Reese during a game against LSU on Wednesday in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Alabama player to watch

While he might not be 100% healthy coming into the game, Herb Jones has a chance to make a major impact against Missouri. 

Jones played for only 16 minutes in the Crimson Tide's victory over LSU on Wednesday. He scored just four points but had eight rebounds, two steals and a block. 

His presence alone can influence a game.

Martin called Jones an elite defender on Friday. Jones likely will draw the assignment against Xavier Pinson, who is tough to stop when he gets going. Jones will be tasked with making sure that never happens while elevating his own game.

Missouri’s key to the game

The Tigers can't try to outpace Alabama. That won't work.

Missouri hasn't tried that before, so it doesn't make sense to show something completely new in game No. 16 of the season. If anything, Missouri should lean into its methodical and gritty style to disrupt Alabama from turning the game into a track meet.

The Crimson Tide haven't had a true off night since losing to Western Kentucky on Dec. 19. That's seven weeks and a dozen games ago.

Alabama may be due for a letdown, and Missouri may have the depth and experience to be the team to knock Alabama out of its groove.

Alabama's key to the game

The Crimson Tide are in an enviable position. Saturday represents their toughest game of eight remaining on their conference slate.

Alabama was confident walking into Tennessee, Auburn and Kentucky and getting wins in all three places. Now, it hopes to do the same in Columbia. 

Missouri has talented scorers, but it clearly prefers to shut down the opposition with its defense first. The Tigers don't solely rely on their offense too often. 

If Alabama can jump out to an early lead, it would force Missouri's hand. That's not where the Tigers want to be.

Final score prediction

No. 10 Alabama 82, No. 18 Missouri 78

Contact Eric Blum at eblum@columbiatribune.com. Follow @ByEricBlum on Twitter.

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