Lions, Tigers and (Mercer) Bears…Oh my!

If a sandwich were used as a metaphor to describe the Georgia Bulldogs (8-2) 2010-2011 schedule, then the SEC slate would probably be the meat.

Which would leave Georgia’s holiday slate of games – Arkansas State, High Point, Mercer, Charleston Southern and Eastern Kentucky – as either the lettuce, or maybe the alfalfa sprouts?

On Thursday night, the Dawgs will take on another group of “alfalfa sprouts” when they travel to Macon, Georgia to play the Mercer Bears.

Mercer (3-7; 0-2 A-Sun) is coming off a 73-68 win over Navy, a win that snapped them out of a four-game losing streak.  The Bears were projected by to finish near the bottom of the Atlantic Sun Conference this season, and they are currently living up to those less-than-lofty expectations with an 0-2 A-Sun record.

Mercer is 3-2 at home this season though, and their win over Navy was mildly impressive considering they were playing without senior forward Brandon Moore – the team’s leading rebounder (6.7 rpg) and second-leading scorer (11.8 ppg).  Moore suffered an elbow to the face in a game against Lipscomb on December 4th and he hasn’t played since.  However, Moore should be available on Thursday night for the game against Georgia.

The Bears are led by senior guard Jeff Smith, a preseason Atlantic Sun All-League Second Team selection.  Through the first 10 games of the season, Smith is averaging 14.8 points and hitting nearly 33% of his shots from beyond the arc.  He has gone over 20 points four times already this season.

In the frontcourt joining Brandon Moore is 6’7″ forward Brian Mills, a  Douglasville, Georgia native who is giving the Bears 11.7 points and 5.5 boards a night.

The sharp-shooter on this Mercer team is freshman guard Langston Hall, who hails from Atlanta and played his high school ball at Chamblee.  Hall is shooting a blistering 45.2% from beyond the arc, while averaging 8.5 points per game.

As a team, Mercer has not been shooting the ball well this season – 41.7% from the field and 30.6% from three-point range.  However, they are certainly not shy about putting it up from beyond the arc, hoisting up nearly 21 three-point attempts per game.

This is another game in which Georgia will have a serious size advantage inside.  Mercer only starts one player taller than 6’6″, Brian Mills, who is also the heaviest starter at 201 pounds.  The Bears are only bringing down 33.4 rebounds per game (Georgia averages 37 rpg), and they sport a not-so-impressive negative 1.2 rebounding margin.

The Dawgs dropped 42 points in the paint against High Point on Tuesday, and they should be looking to be just as physical inside against the Bears.  Trey Thompkins has scored in double-figures in every game so far this season, and he’ll need to continue that streak for the Dawgs to be successful in Macon on Thursday.  Georgia is 5-0 in games this year when Thompkins nets 15 points or more, so clearly his offensive production is a big part of the winning.

Georgia junior Travis Leslie did not have many offensive highlights on Tuesday, scoring just 5 points and shooting only 25% from the floor.  However, his defensive effort did not go unnoticed.  The “Elevator from Decatur” held High Point guard Nick Barbour, the preseason Big South Player of the Year, to merely 3 points – Barbour was averaging 16.8 ppg before running into Georgia.

On Thursday, Coach Mark Fox will probably ask Leslie to put the clamps on Mercer star Jeff Smith.  If he can take Smith out of his offensive game, it will put a lot of pressure on the other Mercer guards and should take them out of their comfort zone.

One final note, there have been a lot of comments over the past few weeks in regards to Georgia’s team free-throw shooting.  As a team, Georgia is currently shooting an atrocious 61.1% from the charity stripe, ranking them at #322 out of the 346 Division I schools.  This is a glaring weakness for Mark Fox’s team, and it makes me nervous about their ability to close out SEC conference games (which are just around the corner).

This will be my first game at University Center in Macon, which sports a potential capacity of 3,200.

If you can’t make the trip to Macon, the game will be televised on CSS at 7:00PM.

Mark Fox’s team will look to win its sixth straight game on Thursday before taking a short break for the holidays.

Dawgs Defense Smothers High Point

After the Georgia Bulldogs (8-2) win over Arkansas State last Saturday, senior forward Chris Barnes felt like his team lacked a killer instinct.

“I think it’s a focus thing,” Barnes said. “We see that we’re up by 20, we get a little lackadaisical and start releasing our pressure on the team. We have to start holding them down. Once we put our foot on their throat, we have to keep them down.”

On Tuesday night, Georgia didn’t take its foot off High Point’s throat until the Panthers’ team bus had pulled out of Athens and was heading north up Interstate 85.

High Point came into the game with an 0-9 record against SEC schools, and the Georgia Bulldogs made sure that the Panthers left Stegeman Coliseum still in search of their first win (against an SEC team).

Georgia was able to build up a 34-24 lead going into the half despite not having Trey Thompkins for nearly 10 minutes due to foul trouble.  The Dawgs were led offensively by Gerald Robinson, Jr. who scored 10 points before the break – he finished the game with 21 points and probably could have reached 40 if Coach Mark Fox hadn’t pulled him from the game with 11:46 remaining and his team up 58-32.  GR2 was knifing through the Panther defense all night, getting nearly all his points off of lay-ups.

The Dawgs started the second half with a 7-0 run following back-to-back buckets inside by Thompkins, and then a jumper by Dustin Ware off of a Travis Leslie steal.  High Point Coach Scott Cherry called a timeout to help his team regroup with the score at 41-24, but the route was already on.

Georgia’s second half defense matched the intensity of its first half defense and then some, holding High Point to just 14 second-half points and limiting them to 14.3% from the field.  As a team, the Panthers shot just 20.7% from the floor on the game.

Big South Preseason Player of the Year, Nick Barbour, came into Tuesday night’s game averaging 16.8 points per game.  However, Barbour was frustrated all night by relentless pressure from Georgia’s Travis Leslie and Marcus Thornton, and the junior only finished the game with 3 points on 1 of 9 shooting.

The only Panther player to reach double-figures was guard Shay Shine, who led his team with 15 points.

The Dawgs defense forced the Panthers into 19 turnovers, and Georgia converted those extra possessions into 25 points.

Georgia had its biggest “Block Party” of the season, tallying up 11 rejections as a team with Jeremy Price and Chris Barnes getting 3 apiece.

Offensively, Mark Fox’s team had another superb effort in efficiency, dishing out 16 team assists to just 6 turnovers.  Georgia came into this game with a size advantage inside, and they exploited that advantage for 42 points in the paint.   Trey Thompkins led all Georgia bigs with 15 points in just 19 minutes of play.

And once again Georgia shot it well from the floor, knocking down nearly 54% of their field goal attempts.

Mark Fox said before the game that he wanted to see his team play defense for 40 minutes – it’s safe to say that he got his wish.  Even though Georgia was taking on a lesser opponent and expected to win, it was great to see the Dawgs treat the Panthers like an inferior opponent by blowing them out of the gym 85-38.

The Dawgs are now winners of five straight and will play one more game before Christmas Thursday night at Mercer.