The Georgia Bulldogs are 3-0 for the first time since the 2007-2008 season, or as some people call it, “The season that ended with a tornado ripping through Atlanta, forcing the SEC Tournament into Georgia Tech’s gym and resulting in the Dawgs winning the championship and earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament”.
But this 3-0 start has been far more impressive because the Dawgs are doing it without the SEC Preseason Player of the Year, Trey Thompkins.
Yet, ESPN analyst Andy Katz (my favorite ESPN analyst of all-time) is sticking with Georgia to win this holiday tournament. Matter of fact, so are two of Katz’s colleagues – Jay Williams and Fran Fraschilla.
It’s too bad that Georgia didn’t get that same kind of love in either of this week’s national polls – Georgia remained unranked in both the AP (receiving 28 votes) and the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll (receiving 1 vote). The head-scratcher here is that in last week’s polls, the Dawgs were receiving 42 votes in the AP and 4 votes in the Coaches – so they are being punished for winning without their best player?
Luckily for Georgia, the college basketball polls aren’t nearly as significant as the college football polls – but it would be nice to crack one of those Top 25’s since it hasn’t happened in nearly seven years.
The best thing that the Dawgs can do his head down to Orlando and win some ball games.
And that starts with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (3-0).
The Irish finished 23-12 last year (their 5th straight 20-win season) with a 10-8 record in Big East play. However, they did suffer two key losses from that roster – PF Luke Harangody, the team’s leading scorer (21.8 ppg) and rebounder (9.1 rpg) and PG Tory Jackson who led the team with 5.3 assists and also chipped in 9.6 ppg.
Heading into this season, analysts felt that Notre Dame had enough depth in the frontcourt to replace Harangody’s points and rebounds. The big concern for the Irish was in their backcourt, where they would be breaking in a new point guard.
Through the first three games, Notre Dame freshman point guard Eric Atkins has put a lot of those concerns to rest. Atkins, a McDonald’s All-American nominee, has played well for coach Mike Brey, averaging 10.3 ppg, dishing out 4 assists/game and shooting a blistering 62.5% from beyond the three-point line.
Joining Atkins in the backcourt is senior guard Ben Hansbrough, the younger brother of Tyler “Psycho T” Hansbrough. Young Ben has been lighting it up from beyond the arc, hitting 15 of 25 three-point attempts (60%) and leading this team in both scoring (20.3 ppg) and assists (4.7).
The Notre Dame frontcourt is made up of three seniors and anchored by 6’8″ Tim Abromaitas, who had a “breakout season” last year, averaging 16.1 ppg and shooting 42.9% from three-point range. Abromaitas is out to a strong start this season, scoring 14.7 ppg and grabbing 7.3 boards despite hitting only 4 of 24 from beyond the arc (let’s hope he doesn’t find his touch against Georgia). He is a nightmare match-up for opposing bigs because he has the ability to score both inside and out – Price and Barnes are going to have their work cut out for them.
Tyrone Nash (11.3ppg / 7.0 rpg) and Carleton Scott (9.0 ppg / 8.0 rpg) round out the rest of the Irish frontcourt.
Senior wingman 6’8″ Scott Martin – a transfer from Purdue – gives Coach Brey a quality sixth man he can look to for a little bit of everything (6.5ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.5 apg) off the bench.
Even though Notre Dame is 3-0, it’s hard to judge just how good they really are because their schedule thus far has resembled “Cupcake Row” – Georgia Southern, Liberty and Chicago State. The Dawgs will no doubt be the first real test of the season for this Irish team.
However, Notre Dame will be the best team that Georgia has played so far as well – four seniors in the starting five, balanced scoring and rebounding and a proven coach in Mike Brey (the Irish have made it to the postseason in each of Brey’s 10 seasons).
Georgia‘s last-second win at Saint Louis was definitely a great confidence booster for a team that didn’t win a road game last season (I was at a family trip in Dahlonega, GA and unfortunately unable to listen – I did follow fervently on my phone under the dinner table and nearly kicked the person across the table from me when I refreshed the screen and saw 61-59).
But this team must clean up the turnovers (17 @ Saint Louis and 18 vs Colorado). Gerald Robinson, Jr. (GR2) had 8 assists at Saint Louis – including the dish to Jeremy Price that led to the game-winning bucket – but he nearly matched that total with 7 turnovers. If Georgia is going to find success down in Orlando, Coach Fox is going to need smarter play out of GR2, who has been the Dawgs’ most pleasant surprise of this young season – 16.7 ppg and a team-leading 5.7 apg.
This is a senior-laden Notre Dame team that is only turning the ball over 10 times a game, meaning that they play smart with the ball and don’t give their opponents too many extra possessions.
This game is going to present quite a rebounding challenge for the Dawgs‘ frontcourt of Price, Travis Leslie (G/F) and Chris Barnes. The Irish are grabbing 49 boards a game to Georgia’s 34, and on top of that they have a serious size advantage inside – their roster is full of 6’8″ and 6’9″ bigs.
Barnes was productive again off the bench for Coach Fox against Saint Louis, hauling down 5 rebounds in just 14 minutes of play. He’s averaging 7.0 rebounds in the last two games and needs to continue to attack the glass going forward with Thompkins on the sidelines.
Notre Dame will most likely be looking to slow the pace of this game down, allowing them to pound the ball inside on the Dawgs defensively. It will be up to GR2, Travis Leslie and Dustin Ware to push the ball and try to turn this game into a bit of a track meet because the Dawgs certainly have a quickness advantage.
I think the key to this game is going to lie in the hands (or legs) of Travis Leslie. Leslie has been sensational for Coach Fox so far this season, leading the team in points (18.0), rebounds (8.3) and minutes (32.0).
However, it’s not just his offense that the Dawgs will rely on Thursday night – they are going to need a great defensive effort from Leslie as well. I am assuming that the 6’7″ Connor Nolte will match up with one of Notre Dame’s bigs (maybe Carleton Scott?) because they have so much height inside (6’8″, 6’8″ and 6’7″).
This will leave Leslie to guard the Irish’s leading scorer, Ben Hansbrough. Hansbrough is an excellent shooter, and guarding excellent shooters is difficult. Leslie will have to be aware of where “Psycho B” is on the court at all times, which will be a tiring endeavor.
The Old Spice Classic presents another great opportunity for this Georgia team to continue building its NCAA tournament resume. Any wins that the Dawgs can secure away from The Steg will go a long way in convincing tournament committee members that they deserve a bid in March (especially if they can continue to win without Trey).
The game will be televised at 7:00PM EST on ESPN2, meaning that this game (and tournament) will give Georgia some much-needed national exposure. Sounds like a nice thing to mention to recruiting prospects as well, doesn’t it?
Hopefully the Dawgs can make playing in a preseason tournament a regular occurrence in the future. Winning a few games at the Old Spice Classic would certainly help.