Georgia Opens Up December With UAB

The good news for the Georgia Bulldogs (4-2) is that they have only two games in December that will require their undivided attention – UAB (6-1) and Georgia Tech.  Their other five non-conference opponents – Arkansas State, High Point, Mercer, Charleston Southern, Eastern Kentucky – should basically serve as glorified tune-ups before the Dawgs get into their 2011 SEC schedule.

The bad news is that Georgia plays UAB and Georgia Tech one after the other, leaving little room for error.

On Friday, Georgia will play host to a UAB team that was predicted to finish 8th in the Conference USA coming into the 2010-2011 season after losing their top scorers from last year – Elijah Millsap (16.1 ppg) and Howard Crawford (11.8 ppg).

Despite the modest expectations, Coach Mike Davis’s UAB Blazers have gotten out to a hot start, winning 6 of their first 7 games – including a 70-65 overtime win against the Arkansas Razorbacks.  The Blazers only loss was a 69-66 heart-breaker on the road at Arizona State – the Sun Devils hit a three-pointer with 2.2 seconds left to win the game.

And in case you missed it, UAB whipped Georgia last year in Birmingham 72-56 (the same day the football team lost to Kentucky in Athens – not a good day for UGA sports).

The reason for UAB’s strong start this season has a lot to do with their veteran backcourt, led by seniors Aaron Johnson and Jamarr Sanders.  Point guard Aaron Johnson currently leads the nation with 9.0 assists per game (he is 4th all-time on UAB’s career assist leaders list), and he sports an impressive 2.74 assist-to-turnover ratio.  Johnson is lightening-quick, and he can definitely get into the lane to create his own shot (9.6 ppg).

Coach Mike Davis is a fan of his point guard as well, praising him after the Blazers 59-53 win over Jacksonville State on Wednesday – “”Aaron (Johnson) is playing so hard, with so much energy right now, it’s unbelievable. If there’s a point guard out there who is better, I want to see him. I’m talking about an overall player, the way he can score, pass the ball, play defense, the way he takes charges. If we can get everyone playing that way, we can be a good team.”

The match-up between the Dawgs‘ Gerald Robinson, Jr. and UAB’s Aaron Johnson should be fun to watch – don’t blink though, or you might miss something.  Both of these players like to attack the teeth of the defense and put defenders on their heels.

Jamarr Sanders is more of a catch-and-shoot guy, netting 15.3 ppg while shooting 34% from three-point range.

The UAB frontcourt is very athletic, featuring a pair of 6’8″ bigs – junior Cameron Moore and sophomore Ovie Soko.  Moore not only leads the Blazers in both scoring (18.4 ppg) and rebounding (9.3 rpg), but the big fella can stroke it from the outside, knocking down 59.3% from the field and 64.7% from beyond the arc.  Soko, who hails from London, England, is contributing 12.4 points and 7.1 boards per contest – not bad for a Brit.  Both of these guys are more effective on offense when facing the basket (vs playing with their back to it).

One of the keys to this game will be the Dawgs‘ perimeter defense, which has not been impressive through the team’s first 6 games.  Georgia currently ranks last in the SEC in three-point percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot over 42% from beyond the arc – shooters are loving the view over the Dawgs‘ defenders.

Georgia must do a better job of contesting outside shots, and that needs to start with UAB because this team can (and will) put it up.  As a team, the Blazers are hoisting up nearly 22 three-point attempts a game, connecting on almost 37% of them.  If Georgia isn’t prepared to get a hand in the face of these UAB shooters, the Dawgs could be in for a LONG night (see the Mississippi Valley State game).

Offensively, the story behind the three-point line has also not been very pretty for the DawgsGeorgia is shooting just 28.6% as a team from beyond the arc, which ranks dead-last in the SEC.  The Dawgs are making an SEC-low FOUR three-pointers a game, which is a big reason why they currently rank 10th in the conference in scoring at just 69.7 ppg.  If Mark Fox could just get 2 or 3 more three-pointers a game (from say, Dustin Ware, Sherrard Brantley or Trey Thompkins) it would do wonders for the Dawgs‘ scoring average – not to mention it would force opponents out of their zone sets.

I watched the Blazers beat Middle Tennessee State 76-71 in November, and UAB played man defense nearly the entire game.  Mike Davis only plays six or seven guys (four starters average over 31 minutes per game), but they are physical and athletic and really get after teams.

It will be interesting to see if Davis keeps his team in a man defense against the Dawgs, who looked mystified against the 2-3 and 1-3-1 zone looks that they saw last week at the Old Spice Classic.

Georgia basketball fans (myself included) were pretty down in the dumps following the Dawgs‘ performance in the tournament in Orlando last week – blowing a 12-point halftime lead against Notre Dame, and then back-to-back lackadaisical efforts against both Temple and Manhattan.  This Georgia team, according to several ESPN analysts, was supposed to be the best in years and primed for a breakout season – last weekend they didn’t look like a team worthy of such high praise.

However, I am a firm believer in Coach Mark Fox and I expect to see a much better effort this Friday against UAB.  Something tells me that Fox has not been happy with the team defense thus far either, and I think we will see a big improvement tomorrow night (especially in the paint).  With Trey back on the practice court this week,  the offense should start to run more smoothly and not look quite as forced (as it did in the Old Spice Classic).

The Dawgs have a chance to go on a nice little run here in December, and there is the possibility of getting to 11-2 before opening up SEC play in January.

It starts tomorrow night with the UAB Blazers.

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