Dawgs Coast at Home

On Thursday night, the Georgia Bulldogs (19-9; 8-6) used a zone defense for nearly the entire game in their loss to the Florida Gators.  In Athens on Saturday, the South Carolina Gamecocks deployed the same strategy, showing the Dawgs zone for the full forty minutes.

Georgia picked it apart.

The Bulldogs attacked the zone with precision-like efficiency – knocking down open shots from the wing, getting the ball to Trey Thompkins in the high post (who in turn either scored or found the cutters along the baseline).  Georgia shot 46.0% from the field and nearly 37.0% from beyond the arc.

Thompkins buried a three-pointer with 10:53 left in the first half to put his team up 15-6, and the Gamecocks never recovered.  The Dawgs took a 39-22 lead into the break, and then proceeded to play even-basketball with the Cocks for the remainder of the game – coasting to a 64-48 win.

I was surprised to see Coach Darren Horn keep his team in a zone, especially coming out of the intermission with the Cocks trailing by 17 points.  One would think that he might want to switch to a man-to-man to pick up the tempo, but that wasn’t the case.

Trey Thompkins led the Dawgs with 20 points and 8 rebounds, his first 20-point performance since the Florida game on January 25th.  Trey also turned in another great defensive effort, recording 3 shot blocks and 7 defensive boards – he now has 18 blocked shots over the past 8 games.

Gerald Robinson, Jr. struggled again on offense, going 3 for 10 from the floor and finishing with just 8 points and 6 turnovers.  He did however, shut down Carolina’s Bruce Ellington once again, limiting him to 7 points and only 3 field goals (on 12 attempts).  As good as a freshman campaign as Ellington has had, you can be sure he does not want to see Robinson on the court again this season.

Jeremy Price played a very productive 24 minutes for Coach Mark Fox, scoring 14 points on a barrage of dunks and snagging 6 boards.  Price had an emphatic dunk-back on an offensive rebound in the first half, and then proceeded to dazzle the Stegeman crowd with his rendition of Aaron Rodgers’ “Championship Belt”.  As entertaining as this spectacle was to see live, let’s hope it never happens again (Price was lucky not to get a technical foul).

Travis Leslie had the most complete game of any Bulldog though, finishing with 15 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists.  Leslie’s point totals can sometimes sneak up on you, but he has now gone for 15+ points in nine conference games this season.

It was reassuring to see the Bulldogs take a lesser opponent (South Carolina) and beat them soundly as opposed to letting them hang around (Auburn) – especially on their home floor.  The Dawgs are now tied with the Kentucky Wildcats for third place in the SEC East (Tennessee was upset at home by Mississippi State).

If the Dawgs can take care of business on Wednesday night against LSU, they will get to the 20-win plateau as well as put themselves in a great position to earn an at-large bid into this year’s NCAA tournament.

Georgia Looking to Hold Serve at Home

The Georgia Bulldogs (18-9; 7-6) have upcoming back-to-back home games against the South Carolina Gamecocks and the LSU Tigers before embarking on their final road trip of the season next Saturday against Alabama.  For the Dawgs to finish the season with a winning conference record (and a really great shot at the NCAA tourney), they need to win two of those three aforementioned games.

Georgia does sport an impressive 7-3 road record this season, however, it’s always good to be home.  A loss to either Carolina or LSU would put a world of hurt on UGA’s postseason dance dreams.  These are games that Georgia needs to win, and that starts this Saturday night at 7:00PM in Athens, GA (in front of a sold-out Stegeman crowd).

The Dawgs won the first match-up between these two teams in Columbia 60-56, in a game that was a tale of two halves.  Georgia out-scored the Cocks 28-9 going into the break, only to let Carolina back in it, allowing them to score 47 to Georgia’s 32 in the second half.  The difference-maker in that game was Gerald Robinson, Jr., who limited South Carolina’s Bruce Ellington to just 2 points on 1 of 12 shooting from the floor – his lowest scoring output in an SEC game this season.

Carolina’s offense continues to revolve around the three-point line, which can be somewhat unfortunate for them as they are shooting just 29.1% in league games this season.  They are making nearly 7 three-pointers a game though, so the Dawgs better be prepared to close out on the perimeter to limit the number of good looks.

Despite Ellington’s lackluster performance against Georgia earlier this month, the freshman is still having a very solid season, averaging 12.5 ppg and dishing out 2.9 apg.  Sophomore Ramon Galloway, who joins Ellington in the backcourt, is netting 11.2 ppg in conference play and is a nice complement to Ellington’s penetration.

Senior Sam Muldrow is leading the Gamecocks in scoring (12.6 ppg) and rebounding (7.7 rpg) in SEC play, and he continues to lead the entire league in blocked shots with 4.2 per game.  He is definitely the glue that holds this team together, and the fact that he can step out and knock down three’s makes him a difficult match-up for opposing bigs.

Coach Darren Horn has gotten great minutes from junior Malik Cooke over the past four games, who is now starting for this Gamecock team.  Cooke has really stepped up his game recently, averaging 15.5 points and 7.0 rebounds over that same four-game span.  He also, interestingly enough, played for two years under Coach Mark Fox’s tutelage at Nevada.

The Dawgs are going to need another great defensive effort from guard Gerald Robinson on Saturday.  He shut down Bruce Ellington in Columbia, and Coach Fox could use more of the same in Athens to get Carolina’s offense out of sync.

If Robinson could find some consistency on offense heading down the stretch, that would be wonderful as well.  GR2 opened up conference play by averaging 18.0 ppg through the first five games – he scored 17 points twice and over 20 points twice as well.

In the past eight SEC games, however, the highest point total that Robinson has hit in a game is 15, which came in the rematch against Vandy.  He is averaging 10.8 ppg over that same stretch of games, yet he’s been held in the single-digits five times.  GR2 has looked somewhat unsure of what to do with the ball once he has reached the paint – leading to short misses and turnovers.  In my humble opinion, with Robinson’s quickness and explosive first-step, I’d like to see him going all the way to rim and trying to score the ball more himself.  Georgia must get more consistent double-digit scoring efforts out of GR2 in the remaining games this season (and post-season).

As easy as it would be to shrug this game off and assume a Georgia home win, it should be noted that South Carolina did go into Gainesville and beat the Florida Gators 72-69 on January 15th – so they are definitely capable.  Not to mention that the Gamecocks will surely be looking for a little payback from the first game between these schools.

Georgia needs to approach these last three games of the season with a lot of focus and intensity, and they should look like a team that’s playing for their tournament lives – because essentially they are.

It should be an exciting atmosphere inside Stegeman on Saturday night, especially with the prime time tip-off and just the overall importance of this game.

I’m heading up to Athens in the afternoon.

Who else is going, and what are everybody’s thoughts on this one?

Gators complete season sweep of Dawgs

Coach Mark Fox had his Georgia Bulldogs (18-9; 7-6) come out in a zone defense last night against the Florida Gators, and by golly, they stuck with it.  For some reason or another, it was apparent that Coach Fox did not feel like his Bulldogs could match-up with the Gators in a man set.

Running a zone defense in college basketball is a bit of a gamble, especially against a good shooting team like Florida (45.0% FG and 35.0% 3PT).  Fox’s strategy worked in the first half, as the Gators struggled to make shots – finishing at 37% from the floor before the break (with only two three-pointers).

After intermission, however, Florida settled in and got a lot more comfortable on offense.  The key stretch of this game came with about 7:30 left and the Gators up 52-51.  Florida’s Kenny Boynton proceeded to bang down three-straight shots from beyond the arc, and following an Alex Tyus lay-up the Gators were all of a sudden leading 63-53 with only 5:10 remaining.  Georgia was never able to fully recover from this 11-2 run, and Chandler Parsons put the nail in the coffin when he snagged an offensive board and stuck it back in to put his team up 65-59 with two minutes left – the final score ended up being 71-62 in favor of the Gators.

Kenny Boynton led the Gators with 18 points, scoring 14 of them in the game’s second half.  He and Chandler Parsons combined for five three-pointers after the break, and Florida finished the game right at their SEC average of 35% from the perimeter.

Georgia had been off since last Saturday’s win at Tennessee, so fatigue should not have been a problem on Thursday.  It was painful to watch Florida swing the ball around the perimeter and bury open three after open three in the second half.  I kept waiting for Coach Fox to get out of the zone and put his team back into man-to-man (especially after Boynton had hit two in a row), but that never happened.

Other than that one killer stretch, the Dawgs played a pretty good game in a rowdy O’Connell Center, with Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins leading the way with 20 and 16, respectively.  Georgia only turned the ball over 13 times (with 17 assists), and they out-rebounded the Gators 32-30.  The problem, however, was that Florida capitalized on nearly every Georgia turnover, resulting in 23 points (off turnovers).

It was a pretty tall order to ask this team to follow-up their road win at Tennessee with another road win against the SEC’s best team.  After dropping both games to the Gators this season, the UGA basketball team has now beaten Florida just twice in the past 16 games – making this rivalry about as lopsided as it is on the football field between these two schools.

The Dawgs are now embattled in a three-way tie with Kentucky and Tennessee for third place in the SEC East.

Georgia has a very quick turnaround, with the South Carolina Gamecocks coming into Athens for a prime time Saturday night tip-off.  The Dawgs don’t have time to sit around and lick their wounds from the loss in Gainesville, as the game against the Cocks is critical to Georgia finishing the season with a winning conference record.

Georgia at Florida in Prime Time on ESPN2

The Georgia Bulldogs (18-8; 7-5) head to Gainesville on Thursday night for a rematch with the #13 Florida Gators, who beat the Dawgs in Athens earlier this season 104-91.  The first meeting between these two teams was one of the better college basketball games of the year, with Georgia coming from behind to send the game into overtime only to have Florida’s Erving Walker hit a three-pointer to force a second overtime.  The Gators were the only team interested in playing in the second overtime as they outscored the Dawgs 19-6 en route a big SEC road victory.

Florida (21-5; 10-2) is undoubtedly the best team in the conference this year, and they are currently riding a five-game winning streak.  The Gators, however, could be playing once again without their preseason All-SEC Second-Team forward Chandler Parsons.  Parsons sustained a deep thigh bruise in Florida’s win over Tennessee on February 12th, forcing him to sit out the second half of that game as well as the LSU game last Sunday – a game that the Gators won 68-61.

Florida coach Billy Donovan did not sound positive about whether or not his star forward would play during Monday’s press conference.

“Right now, I’m not personally, overly optimistic that he’ll play,” coach Billy Donovan said. “I think in his mind, he’d like to try to play. … The last time he did anything physically was this past Friday and he couldn’t do much at all.  We’ll prepare for the game without him and if he plays, it’s a bonus.”

Georgia coach Mark Fox didn’t seem to be buying it though, saying that the Dawgs would “prepare like he is going to play”.

Whether Parsons plays or not remains to be seen, but either way this game is still a difficult road test for a Georgia team that has not won a game in Gainesville in nine years.

That being said, this year’s Bulldogs squad seems to prefer life on the road.  Following the Dawgs’ huge win last Saturday in Knoxville over Tennessee, Georgia now holds an 7-2 record in true road games on the season, and they are 4-2 in SEC games played away from Athens.

In the first game between these teams, the Dawgs did not have an answer for Florida’s dynamic guard tandem of Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton.  Walker and Boynton scored 24 points apiece, and they shot a combined 24 free throws (connecting on 20 of them).  Both guards used a plethora of high screens to get themselves into the paint where they were able to create at will.  Georgia’s bigs must do a better job of stopping penetration off the pick-and-roll, and making it more difficult for Walker and Boynton to get into the lane.

Florida center Vernon Macklin, who is a load inside at 6’10” and 245 pounds, is having a solid senior season for Coach Donovan, averaging 12.7 ppg and shooting over 57% from the field in conference play.  Macklin shot 10 of 15 from the floor and scored 23 points in the game in Athens, his highest scoring output in an SEC game this season.  With the way Trey Thompkins has been defending lately – 15 blocks in his last six games – I would not be at all surprised to see Coach Fox put him on Florida’s big center (and move either Jeremy Price or Chris Barnes on to Alex Tyus).

Though Trey has been playing some inspired defense lately, he has struggled to find offense since the first game against the Gators (the last time he went for 20 points or more).  In the seven games since the Florida one, Thompkins is shooting just 37.3% from the floor and averaging only 12.3 points.  Despite Trey’s offensive woes, the Dawgs have gone 4-3 in this same span of games.  Imagine how dangerous Georgia would be if Thompkins could get his shot going again?

Georgia has two home games left this year on their conference slate – South Carolina and LSU.  If they win those (as they should), they’ll finish with a winning SEC record and will most likely earn an at-large berth into this year’s NCAA tournament.

That means, in a way, that the pressure is off for the game on Thursday (another perk from the win against the Vols).  Mark Fox’s team should play as if they have nothing to lose, and treat this game as a bonus opportunity to upset a conference rival on their home court (and to possibly improve their NCAA seeding – last “Bracketology” had the Dawgs as a 10-seed).

The Gators are 12-3 this year in Gainesville, and again, they haven’t lost one to Georgia in the Oconnell Center in 9 years.

Georgia’s victory in Knoxville last Saturday was their first at Tennessee in over a decade.

It might be time for the Dawgs to end another streak.

Could Georgia Benefit If Yellow Jackets Dismiss Hewitt?

Unless Georgia Tech can somehow miraculously win this year’s ACC Tournament, it seems likely that the Yellow Jackets will suck it up and fork over the near $7 million necessary to buy out Coach Paul Hewitt’s ludicrous contract this March (apparently they must notify him by March 16 if they plan on performing said actions).

Georgia Tech is currently 3-9 in the ACC and they are coming off of a 79-57 throttling at the hands of the Duke Blue Devils.  The chances of them pulling together and winning their conference tournament seem highly unlikely.

Let’s assume Hewitt goes after this season.

Georgia Tech’s 2011 basketball recruits would be able to ask the Institute of Technology for a release from their commitment to said institute – including one Julian Royal (similarly to how the Dawgs obtained Marcus Thornton following Oliver Purnell’s departure from Clemson).  Royal, a four-star power forward recruit from Milton High School, chose the Yellow Jackets over Georgia back in October of 2010.

However, he may have second thoughts given the current positions of the two basketball programs.  Mark Fox has the Bulldogs on the rise and poised to earn an at-large NCAA tournament bid this season.  Georgia Tech, on the other hand, is a floundering program with the third-lowest average attendance in the ACC this year.

Furthermore, Georgia will most likely lose Trey Thompkins to the NBA draft, and they will definitely lose Jeremy Price and Chris Barnes to graduation.  The Dawgs will be loaded on the perimeter next season with the return of both Dustin Ware and Gerald Robinson (and potentially Travis Leslie) to go along with incoming McDonald’s All-American Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, leaving a nice, big comfortable starting power forward role available for a blue chip to step into.

Now I am not one to sit around and root for the misfortunes of others, and I certainly would be sad to see Paul Hewitt leave since he is 0-2 against Coach Mark Fox.

But wouldn’t Julian Royal look great in red and black?

First Time in a Decade

The Georgia Bulldogs (18-8; 7-5) looked like an NCAA tournament team on Saturday in their 69-63 win over the Tennessee Volunteers.  This was a game that Tennessee needed as badly as Georgia, making the victory that much more impressive.

Georgia used a 17-0 run in the first half to build up a 22-7 lead, and they weathered the Vols’ first run to take a 33-25 lead into the half.  There may have been a lid on the rim that Tennessee was shooting on before the break, but Georgia was playing some pretty inspired defense as well.  Coach Mark Fox did a beautiful job of changing his defense from man to zone, keeping the Vols offense off rhythm.

If it weren’t for a career game from Tennessee’s Scotty Hopson, Georgia would have run away with this one early on.  Hopson was unstoppable, torching Georgia for 32 points on a barrage of drives, dunks and three-pointers.

Tennessee turned up the defensive intensity coming out of intermission however, and with 9:27 left they had a 48-45 lead, as well as all the momentum and a raucous Knoxville crowd behind them.

In the face of adversity and with their backs against the wall, the Dawgs simply fought back.  Trey Thompkins shot wasn’t working on Saturday, so his teammates picked up the slack.  During the game’s final ten minutes, Jeremy Price scored 8, Dustin Ware had 6 and Gerald Robinson and Travis Leslie each netted 4 points (Trey had two as well).

Georgia was led in Knoxville by Jeremy Price’s 20 points, with three other players scoring in double-figures for Coach Fox – Leslie (15), Ware (12), Thompkins (11).

Trey was clearly frustrated offensively, finishing just 4 of 14 from the floor on the game.  However, he showed a lot of leadership in his effort on Saturday.  Thompkins led the Dawgs with 9 rebounds, 7 of which came on the defensive end.  His hands were active on defense, creating 6 steals (career best) and swatting 2 shots.

Georgia limited Tennessee to just 9 offensive boards, their second-lowest tally of the season.  Coach Mark Fox had clearly challenged his team to perform better on the defensive glass after they had yielded 23 o-rebs to Vanderbilt in Athens on Wednesday.  The Dawgs responded by keeping the Vols off the boards, and winning the rebounding battle 35-27.

At 7-5 in the conference, Georgia is now tied with Kentucky for third place in the SEC East.  If the Dawgs can split their last four games (holding serve at home), they will finish the season with a winning league record.

On Friday, ESPN’s Doug Gottlieb had the Dawgs listed as “out” of this year’s NCAA Tournament field.

After Georgia’s inspired road win over Tennessee on Saturday, he might need to reevaluate his drawing board.

First Time in a Decade

I’m not going to write too much now – going to go out and enjoy the rest of this beautiful day – but just wanted to express how proud I was of the Georgia Bulldogs this afternoon!

The Dawgs winning 69-63 in Knoxville for the first time in over a decade, and they are now right back in the NCAA Tournament mix.

Again, I’ll write more tomorrow about the game, but feel free to at least toss out some thoughts and comments till then.

Go Dawgs!

Dawgs Look For Payback In Knoxville – Saturday @ 1PM (CBS)

I’ve had a full day now to absorb and take in Wednesday’s devastating home loss to Vanderbilt.  I’m not going to lie, it was a pretty glum trip back down 316 into Atlanta after the game (just like after the Tennessee, Florida and Xavier games).  This loss stung extra bad for so many reasons – it was another squandered opportunity to beat a team with a high RPI; Georgia blew its chance of solidifying the second place position in the SEC East; and, it was the fourth consecutive gut-wrenching mid-week loss in Stegeman Coliseum in 2011.

But I am still a fan of this team, as I know that everyone reading this blog must be as well – honestly, anyone who follows UGA basketball has to be a pretty devoted fan because the Dawgs have given us so little to be excited about for so long now (2007 tornado SEC tournament aside).

Except for this year.  There was reason to be excited for the 2010-2011 season.  Georgia (17-8; 6-5) returned two preseason All-SEC First-Team’ers, and they finally had the point guard they were missing last season that could create off the dribble (Gerald Robinson, Jr.) – the Dawgs were projected by some to contend for the SEC East title, and by many to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

And I still believe that can happen.  I don’t know why really, because the last four or five games have definitely left a lot to be desired.  But I just can’t envision an ending to this season that doesn’t have Georgia winding up in the NCAA tournament.

ESPN’s Doug Gottlieb can – he currently has the Dawgs as “out” of the tourney.

Analysts do not control the Dawgs destiny though, only they do.  And as difficult as it is going to be to go into Knoxville and take a game from the Vols (it hasn’t happened in over a decade), it could happen.  Remember, Tennessee won the first game between these two teams on a questionable last-second rebound and put-back by center Brian Williams.  After the game, even Williams was heard on Sportscenter expressing his surprise at the fact that he wasn’t called for an over-the-back foul.

The Dawgs must get back to playing basketball like they did during the first six SEC games – the team that beat Kentucky at home and that throttled Ole Miss and Missy State.  Georgia’s offense during this initial stretch was averaging 79.2 ppg.  In the last six games however (5 SEC + 1 Xavier), the offense has slowed down dramatically, with the Dawgs netting just 62.3 ppg.

A lot of this decline in scoring has to do with the play of Georgia’s Trey Thompkins, who is scoring just 12.5 ppg over his past six games – hardly the work of a future NBA first-rounder.  I realize that Trey is seeing more double-teams than last year, but he must find away to work around them or the Dawgs will continue to wither.  He needs more support from his teammates, but Trey also must play smarter with the basketball when he sees the trap coming.

Travis Leslie and Marcus Thornton will probably alternate on Tennessee’s star guard, Scotty Hopson.  Hopson is fourth in the conference in scoring at 17.8 ppg, and he is shooting a robust 46.3% from beyond the arc.  At 6’7″, he is a very difficult match-up for opposing wings not just because of his jump shot, but he can also drive the ball to the rim.  A solid defensive effort from Leslie will be key to Georgia’s success on Saturday.

The last thing that I want to hit on regarding this game is toughness.  Over the past six games or so, Georgia has become progressively softer on the inside.  Vanderbilt, a sub-par rebounding team at best, racked up 23 offensive rebounds on the Bulldogs in Stegeman on Wednesday.  With the amount of size that Georgia has on the inside, this is inexcusable.  Thompkins, Jeremy Price and Chris Barnes all weigh above 250 pounds.

Tennessee is the best offensive rebounding team in the league with 14.8 per night.  If Georgia’s bigs can’t man-up and put a body on someone on Saturday, then it will be another long day on the boards for the Dawgs.  Vols center Brian Williams is extremely active on the offensive glass, where he leads the conference with 3.7 o-rebs per game.

In staying with the “toughness” theme, the next time an opposing player drives the lane I’d love to see Jeremy Price put him on the deck.  It is becoming increasingly frustrating to watch Price pick up ticky-tack fouls, and then flail his arms in the air in frustration at the referees.  Jeremy is not the best athlete on the court, and he’s certainly never going to be a consistent scorer for this team.  But he can be a fierce rebounder and a tougher interior defender, which is something this team needs right now.

Other than that, it’s put up or shut up time for the Dawgs.

They are 2-8 against the RPI Top 50, and they don’t have many chances left to improve on that record.  Actually, they have three chances: @ Tennessee, @ Florida and hoping that Ole Miss can go on a little run and bolster their #60 RPI into the coveted “Top 50”.

The silver lining heading into Saturday’s game is that this Georgia squad is 6-2 in true road games this year.  Matter of fact, the Bulldogs have the 9th best road winning percentage in the country (out of 347 Division-I teams).  This is the statistic that the Dawgs will hang their hats on come selection time, so winning another away game is crucial.

The less-silvery lining is that the University of Georgia’s Men’s Basketball team has yet to defeat Bruce Pearl inside Thompson-Boling Arena.

Sounds to me like they are due.

Georgia loses big lead, game and possibly NCAA at-large hopes

Georgia Bulldog coach Mark Fox opened up his post-game interview with the statement, “First off, I want to say that we played with a lot of effort tonight”.

The Dawgs (17-8; 6-5) yielded 23 offensive rebounds and 18 second-chance points to Vanderbilt on Wednesday night

To me, the words “good effort” and “23 offensive rebounds to opposing team” are not synonymous.  Georgia got out-hustled and out-manned in their own gym (once again), and Vanderbilt walked away with a 64-56 win.

And just clarify, this is not a good rebounding Vanderbilt team.  Coming into the game, Vandy was averaging just 34.5 rpg (8th in SEC) and they were tied with LSU for 10th place in the conference at 10.7 offensive boards a game.  On Wednesday night however, the Dawgs made the Dores look like a collection of Charles Barkley’s on the boards.

The first half was low-scoring, but the defensive intensity from both teams was very good.   Neither team shot the ball particularly well from the floor, but Georgia was slightly better and carried a 27-21 lead into the break.

Coming out of the intermission, it was as if two completely different offenses were on the floor, with Georgia and Vandy trading three-pointers at each end.  The Bulldogs were especially hot from beyond the arc, going 5 for 9 from the perimeter and extending their lead to 40-26 following a Sherrard Brantley three with 14:34 remaining.

The killer stretch of the game for the Dawgs unfortunately came in the final ten minutes.  Travis Leslie knocked down a three-pointer to put his team up 53-40 with just 9:47 left.  At this point, the game appeared to be Georgia’s to close out and win.

But the Dawgs did not close this game out, rather, they struggled mightily on offense.  In the last nine minutes, Georgia went 0-11 from the field and committed 3 turnovers.  When the Bulldogs looked to Trey Thompkins to lift them out of their slump, Thompkins responded with just one free throw – he went 0-2 from the floor with 2 turnovers.

Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins knocked down four three’s and scored 18 of his 21 points during the same time span.  When his team needed him, Jenkins stepped up and delivered and his Commodores won the game 64-56.

Between Jenkins and Thompkins, who looked more the SEC Player of the Year last night?

The Dawgs were totally dominated on the glass on Wednesday, losing the battle of the boards by a tally of 49-32.  Vandy’s Festus Ezeli and Jeffery Taylor grabbed 12 and 13, respectively – both were career highs.  The Dawgs did a better job of containing Ezeli on offense in this game, limiting him to just 10 points, but he made up for it on the defensive end, swatting 7 Bulldog shot attempts.

It’s hard to imagine that Georgia’s Jeremy Price and Vandy’s Ezeli are almost the same age, because one player (Ezeli) looks like a man on the court and the other looks – soft (Price).  In 18 minutes of play, Price pulled down just 1 rebound and committed 3 turnovers.

Georgia’s two NBA prospects – Thompkins and Leslie – combined for 4 for 19 from the floor and just 17 points.  Trey has not scored 20 or more points in a game since the Florida game on January 25th, and he’s averaging just 12.5 ppg in his past six games.  February is the time of the season when good teams and good players get stronger, yet Georgia’s star player has been struggling to create offense.

The only Bulldogs to score in double-figures were guards Dustin Ware and Gerald Robinson, who finished with 12 and 15 points, respectively.  These two combined for six three-pointers on the night, and more importantly, zero turnovers.

Georgia squandered its fourth consecutive nationally televised mid-week game on Wednesday, leaving them with a 2-8 record against the RPI Top 50.  Even worse, the Dawgs are now 1-5 in games played against SEC East opponents with winning conference records – Tennessee, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida.

If Georgia hopes to finish with a winning league record themselves, then they must win another road game.  Unfortunately for the Dawgs, their final three away games are against teams (Tennessee, Florida, Alabama) with a combined record of 13-3 in SEC home games.

I don’t know exactly what part of the NCAA bubble Georgia was on prior to the loss to Vanderbilt, but I think it is safe to say that they are now on the wrong side of it.  In his write-up about the game, ESPN’s Mark Schlabach described Georgia’s loss to Vandy as “another blow to its fading NCAA at-large hopes” – it’s pretty hard to disagree with him.

The Bulldogs play Tennessee on Saturday in Knoxville, a place where Georgia has not won a basketball game in over a decade.

Big RPI Opportunity For Georgia on Wednesday

The Georgia Bulldogs‘ (17-7; 6-4) game against the #18 Vanderbilt Commodores on Wednesday is another huge opportunity for the Dawgs.

A win would all but assure Georgia of a winning conference record (assuming home wins over SC and LSU).  Not to mention that it would give them another victory over a team with a very high RPI (#15 Vandy).  Beating Vanderbilt on Wednesday would put Georgia on track to earn an at-large berth into this year’s NCAA tournament.

If the Bulldogs were to – eh’hem – lose to Vandy however, dancing in March becomes quite a challenge.  A loss to Vanderbilt would mean another squandered opportunity at home against a nationally ranked opponent (in front of a national audience).  It would also mean that the Dawgs would then have to win another SEC road game to finish with a winning conference record.

Georgia has not beaten the Florida Gators in Gainesville in nine years, and they haven’t taken a game in Knoxville in over a decade.  The Alabama Crimson Tide is undefeated at home in SEC games this season.  These are the remaining road games on Georgia’s conference schedule.

Now I am not saying that the Dawgs can’t win in Gainesville, Knoxville or Tuscaloosa, but it sure would make life a lot easier on Georgia (and their fans) if the Dawgs could just take care of business Wednesday night.

Vanderbilt won the first match-up between these two teams 73-66 in Nashville back in January.  In that game, 6’11” junior center Festus Ezeli scored 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, his only double-double in an SEC game this season.  Ezeli’s 18 points matched his season-high in a conference game, with the big man from Nigeria absolutely dominating Georgia’s Jeremy Price and Chris Barnes on the inside.  In 23 minutes of play, Price and Barnes combined for 2 points, 3 rebounds and 9 personal fouls (with Jeremy fouling out).

Over the past four games, Georgia’s Trey Thompkins has really stepped up his interior defense, registering 10 shot blocks in that span (he ranks 7th in the SEC in blocked shots with 1.8 per game).  Maybe Coach Mark Fox needs to switch up the match-ups defensively and let Trey have a go at Ezeli?

Vandy’s other two big guns on offense are sophomore John Jenkins and junior Jeffrey Taylor.  Jenkins, who is a strong candidate for SEC player of the year, is leading the conference in scoring with 22.3 ppg as well as shooting over 46% from beyond the arc.  Defenders have to remain very close to this guy, because much like BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, he can get his shot off quickly and from just about anywhere inside the half court line.

The match-up between Vanderbilt’s Jeffery Taylor and Georgia’s Travis Leslie will feature two of the best athletes (and dunkers) in the country.  Taylor is averaging 14.3 ppg in conference play (to Leslie’s 15.0 ppg) this season, and he contributed 15 points when the teams hooked up back in January.

Travis Leslie has played some of his best basketball against the ‘Dores, netting 23.5 ppg over the past two seasons in four games – including his career-high 34-point performance in the SEC tournament loss to Vandy last season.  Trey Thompkins is most likely to see a plethora of double-teams on Wednesday, and he will need to be able to find Leslie cutting and slashing down the lane.

The South Carolina game marked the 9th time this year that Georgia has finished a game with more turnovers than assists.  Astonishingly though, the Dawgs rank second in the conference with a 1.2 assist-to-turnover ratio, and they are first in the SEC in assists at 16.0 per game.

Despite their high assist-to-turnover ratio, Georgia has become increasingly careless with the basketball.  Through the first five games of SEC play, the Dawgs were giving the ball away just 11.8 times per game.  In the last six contests however, Georgia has been turning it over 15 times a game.  The Bulldogs are now averaging the 4th highest number of turnovers in the conference at 13.8 per contest – Auburn, Ole Miss and South Carolina are all turning it over less.

Georgia also currently owns the dubious title of the worst turnover margin in the SEC at -3.6.  The Dawgs are about to embark on a very difficult chunk of their schedule – Vandy and then road trips to Tennessee and Florida.  Coach Fox’s team has to clean things up and protect the ball better if they want to compete and close out in these games.

Georgia has gone 0-3 in weeknight games in Athens thus far in 2011, with losses to Tennessee, Florida and Xavier.  What hurts more is that all three of these losses were televised nationally by ESPN or ESPNU (not too mention that they made for some agonizing trips back to Atlanta for yours truly).  Wednesday night’s showdown will be airing live on ESPNU as well, so once again, Georgia will have the attention of the entire basketball nation for a weeknight game.

Though the Dawgs don’t have any bad losses on their tournament resume, they don’t have too many quality wins either.  Their record against the RPI Top 50 is an unsightly 2-7, and Vanderbilt represents the last chance for them to get a quality win at home against a high-RPI team.  In the latest edition of ESPN’s “Bubble Watch“, the Dawgs are listed under “Work Left to Do” – meaning they are by no means a lock for an at-large berth.  When referring to the Vandy game, ESPN “Bubble Watch” author Eamonn Brennan simply stated, “A win is advised”.

Subtext: Georgia needs to win this game to get on the right side of the tournament bubble.

Mark Fox has now coached Georgia through 55 games, but Wednesday night’s against the Commodores will be his most important one yet.