Georgia opens up SEC play with Alabama on Saturday night

The Georgia Bulldogs (9-5) begin their 2012 Southeastern Conference schedule on Saturday in Athens against the Alabama Crimson Tide (11-3).  This Alabama team is going to look nothing like the slew of small-conference foes that meandered through Stegeman Coliseum (and almost won – see Winthrop game) over the December holiday break.

Rather, the Tide are an athletic, physical bunch that should contend for the conference title.  This Bama team is almost identical to the one that beat Georgia twice last season, when the Dawgs frontcourt featured Trey Thompkins, Travis Leslie and Jeremy Price.

Alabama coach Anthony Grant has always been known for preaching defense, and his team this year has bought in hook, line and sinker.  The Tide play a smothering man defense that has them peppering the national team defensive rankings in nearly every category that counts – yielding just 55.6 points per game (9th) and holding opponents to 36.4% (6th) from the floor and 25.9% on three-point attempts (5th).

The Tide have already held four opponents this season under 50 total points, with two of those victims being Maryland and Georgia Tech (a team the Dawgs lost to earlier in the year).

Alabama’s star power resides in its frontcourt where they feature senior JaMychal Green and junior Tony Mitchell.  Green, a preseason All-SEC First Team member, has been slowly working his way back into the Tide’s rotation after suffering a shoulder injury that kept him out of the team’s wins over Oklahoma State and Jacksonville.  He did play 22 minutes in Bama’s win over Georgia Tech earlier this week, and he should be ready for even more minutes against the Dawgs on Saturday.  Green is a load to handle in the paint, and he leads this team in scoring with 15.3 points per game.

The high-flying Tony Mitchell (All-SEC Second Team selection) plays alongside Green on the block where is netting 15.1 points and bringing down a team-leading 7.4 boards per contest.  He’s generally regarded primarily for his athleticism, but Mitchell can actually be quite effective from the perimeter where he’s knocking down nearly 35% of his three-point attempts.

Sophomore point guard Trevor Releford has done an excellent job of running Coach Grant’s offense this season, contributing 12.4 points to go along with 3.4 assists.  Georgia’s Gerald Robinson, Jr. has been in a bit of a defensive funk lately, and he’ll need to snap out of it by tomorrow in order to slow Releford and this Alabama offense down.

The Dawgs are riding a five-game win streak into Saturday’s conference match-up, albeit it came against fairly weak competition.  However, Georgia’s offense has improved dramatically since the start of the season when 8-minute scoring droughts were regular occurrences.  Over the past three games, the Bulldogs are shooting 47.4% from the floor and nearly 39% from beyond the arc.

Freshman Kentavious-Caldwell Pope has had a pretty successful first half of the season, leading the team with 14.1 points to go along with 5.3 rebounds per game.  The real season starts now though, and Georgia desperately needs KCP to continue to play at a high level as the Dawgs navigate their way through what should be a challenging SEC schedule.  I am interested to see how Pope handles the intense defensive pressure of a conference game, especially on Saturday where he will be facing maybe the best defense in the SEC.

On paper Georgia does not stack up well against the Tide, who are loaded with talent and firepower.  However, this Alabama team does like to press and push the tempo after missed field goal attempts, which could in effect serve to help the Dawgs stay competitive in this game.  Georgia’s lack of an inside presence has made their halfcourt offense unproductive, and the Dawgs are clearly at their best when the guards are running the court and scoring in transition.

Bama does not shoot the ball well from the outside – just 27.2% on threes – so don’t be surprised if Coach Mark Fox mixes in some zone defense to entice the Tide into putting it up from beyond the arc.

The atmosphere should be a little more raucous inside Stegeman on Saturday night compared to December since football season is over and the students should be back from winter break.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to expect from Coach Mark Fox’s team in their first conference game.  Earlier in the season the Dawgs struggled to score to start the second half, though recently they have been sluggish out of the gates.  At times Georgia has pushed the ball up the court relentlessly, while at others they have fumbled through halfcourt offensive sets for minutes on end.

The season starts in Athens on Saturday – what does everyone think?