January 13, 2014 6:57:10 PM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- If there's one player that's single-handedly keeping his team above the bottom of the Southeastern Conference, it's Alabama guard Trevor Releford.
The only Crimson Tide player among the conference elite in points, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, three-point percentage and steals is Releford. Releford factors into over 25 percent of Alabama's offensive possessions this season, and he's playing an average of 33.6 minutes per game.
Alabama (7-8, 1-1 in SEC play) will look to ride the conference's sixth leading scorer at 18.2 points per game when Mississippi State (11-4, 1-1) travels to Coleman Coliseum Wednesday for a 7 p.m. tip.
"Whoever is going to be matched up against Trevor Releford has got to be prepared to play defense the whole time because he just never quits trying to score the basketball," MSU coach Rick Ray said Monday.
Releford came out of Ray's hometown of Kansas City, Mo., where the four-star prospect was named All-Metro player of the year by The Kansas City Star and named the best ball-handling prep guard by Slam Magazine in 2010.
In his five previous games against MSU, Releford has averaged 13.6 points per game and led the Tide to a 4-1 record in those games. The only game he missed was last season's 75-43 blowout victory for the Crimson Tide as he sat out due to a late ankle injury.
"He's a guy that has been a elite scorer for them essentially since the day he stepped foot on campus and he's the guy that when they need a bucket, they go to him," Ray said. "He's not just a one-on-one player because they send him off ball screens (and) he'll cut off the ball too."
In order to become a more dynamic player in his senior season, Releford has developed a more long range shooting element to his arsenal by connecting on 38.4 percent of three-point shots. In his previous three seasons a scoring point guard, Releford has been relegated to a penetration game for all of his offense. In the 2013-14 season, Tide coach Anthony Grant can actually have the 6-foot guard move off the ball and be a catch-and-shoot option. By having more options in his game over the last three seasons, Releford has seen a direct correlation from his increased three-point percentage (27.9 as a freshman to 40.7 as a junior) to his scoring average gradually going up as well (11 per game in first year to 18.2 as a senior).
"What you want to see in your guys in improvement every season and Trevor was able to make a impact as a freshman based on his talent and competitiveness," Grant said. "Being in the year, he's added something different to his game. This year it's been about the addition of a consistent perimeter shot."
Alabama desperately needs Releford to play well every game as their offensive efficiency rating sits just 140th in the nation, seventh in the SEC, of 351 Division 1 college basketball programs after having him start 13 of the first 15 games.
Releford was held out of games before Christmas due to a lingering hip injury that affected his ability to hound ball handlers in Anthony Grant's full court pressure defense. However, the Tide's fifth-year coach had full confidence it wouldn't be a long term issue. Releford squashed those fears by averaging 16.5 points per game and 3.5 steals in the first two SEC games against Vanderbilt and Georgia.
"It just needs to get better," Grant said in December. "It's limiting his mobility a little bit. We just made a decision that he needed to let it calm down a little bit and get back. It shouldn't be anything long term."
In the 66-58 loss at Georgia Saturday Releford was limited to just two first-half points but finished with 17 to lead the Tide. He also had a team-leading four steals and three assists but was just 1 for 8 from behind the arc.
"He's a guy that is really knocking down three point shots lately and when he does that, it makes his dribble penetration game even more dangerous because you have to go further out to guard him," Ray said.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.