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.