SEC Tournament: the win over Vandy and looking ahead to Mizzou

Quick recap

A review of Vanderbilt’s first 7 possessions last night: miss, miss, miss, miss, miss, miss and miss.  Let’s just say that Georgia (17-14) set the tone on defense early on in this one. Before the game, Juwan Parker highlighted that his team had been focused on defending the perimeter better than they did in Nashville against the Commodores.  In the first meeting between these two teams, Vandy knocked down 11 triples.  Last night, the ‘Dores had just 2 three-pointers by halftime, and they would finish with only 8 (on 23 attempts), which was below their season SEC average of 10 per night.  Georgia held Vandy to under 28% from the floor heading into the intermission.

UGA’s defensive intensity carried over to the offense side of the ball as well. The Dawgs looked like a well-oiled machine from the opening tip.  When Vandy showed man, Georgia pounded the ball inside to its bigs, who either finished at the rim or found open shooters on the perimeter.  If the ‘Dores went into zone, UGA calmly worked the ball around until they located the soft spots.  Where was this team all season?  Georgia hit 5 of its 9 shots from beyond the arc, shot 53% from the floor and dished out 10 team assists before the intermission.  The Dawgs committed just 2 turnovers prior to the break, and they had six different players with at least 4 points as they headed to the locker room with a comfortable 43-22 advantage.

Losing big leads in the second half of SEC games has sort of been a mantra for this UGA team all year, but the Dawgs were having none of that last night. Vandy hit a couple three’s coming out of the half and seemed to be making a run at UGA as they cut the lead to 43-29 with 18:15 left, but Georgia quickly squashed those hopes by responding with a 14-4 run of its own that bolstered the Dawgs’ advantage back up to 57-33 with over 13 minutes remaining. Coach Mark Fox’s team would go into cruise control mode for the remainder of the game, and Georgia earned a 78-62 first round victory.

Players that need highlighting

Maybe Yante Maten needed that smack to the jaw from Tennessee’s Grant Williams to help snap him out of last week’s funk when the Georgia big shot just 10 of 33 from the floor in two games.  Against Vandy, Maten embodied the SEC Player of the Year as he scored 25 points on a 9 for 12 effort from the floor.  He knocked down a pair of three’s in the first half, and he handled the Vandy double-teams efficiently all game as he either spun away from the doubling defender or found an open teammate.  The Georgia senior, who usually displays a range of emotions when he’s got things cooking on offense, appeared rather focused (almost business-like) in the win over the ‘Dores.  Yante looked like a player that is not ready for his college basketball career to end just yet.

Coach Mark Fox got big minutes from two of his freshman last night: Rayshaun Hammonds and Teshaun Hightower.  In the loss at Vandy, Hammonds had a forgettable game in which he went 0 for 5 from the floor and struggled to scored inside against smaller Commodore defenders.  Last night, however, the freshman had no trouble taking advantage in the paint against Riley LaChance and any of the other Vandy guards that were stuck in a mismatch against him.  Hammonds finished with 10 points and 8 rebounds, and his best bucket came off of an attempted double by Vandy that he avoided by spinning quickly to his left and finishing off the glass.  Hammonds has now scored in double-figures in 5 of the last 8 games, and he is starting to live up to some of the hype that followed him from high school.

For whatever reason, Teshaun Hightower logged only 1 minute of play at Tennessee last weekend, which was a head-scratcher considering he played arguably his best game of the season the game before in Athens against TAMU.  Last night, though, Fox gave the freshman 21 minutes of court time, and Hightower took advantage as he scored 13 points and dished out 6 assists.  His aggression and size at the point position gives Georgia a guard that can drive the ball into the paint and attack the rim.  Hightower also knocked down a pair of triples, which is an area of his game that has improved dramatically over the course of the year.  He began the season just 1 of 11 from beyond the arc in the non-conference portion of the schedule, but he’s now made nearly 38% of his three-point attempts in SEC games.  Hightower is giving this Georgia team something it desperately needs: another outside scoring threat.

Up next: Mizzou

The return of future NBA lottery pick Michael Porter, Jr. dominated all story lines yesterday surrounding this tournament. Since getting injured 2 minutes into the opening game against Iowa State, the freshman hasn’t played again. After the game last evening, Coach Fox joked that he had seen so little of Porter that he wasn’t even sure what position he played.

This game definitely presents quite a challenge for Georgia.  They already lost to Mizzou at their place earlier in the year, and this contest is being played in St. Louis, which is in Missouri’s backyard, so this game will have a home atmosphere feel to it for the Tigers.  Porter’s return only adds to the hype.

However, I do feel that Porter coming back does give UGA a slight advantage. He’s been practicing for 2 weeks now, but practice is WAY different than a game, just ask Allen Iverson.  As good as he may be, there’s no way his return doesn’t disrupt Mizzou’s chemistry.  How aggressive will he be? Will he press to score points? How will the guys who have stepped up and played in his absence respond to their reduced roles?  All of these questions are good things for UGA.  Couple those uncertainties with the fact that Georgia has already played and won on the tournament court, and I think the Dawgs have an outside shot at spoiling Porter’s return to college basketball.

The keys to UGA’s win over Vanderbilt

Just a few days removed from a crushing overtime defeat at the hands of the Florida Gators, the Georgia Bulldogs (12-6, 4-2) collected themselves and managed to bounce back at home on Tuesday night against the Vanderbilt Commodores (8-10, 2-4).  Here are the keys that propelled UGA to the 76-68 home win:

Unselfish, efficient offense

Vanderbilt attempted to zone the Dawgs early in this game and UGA ate it up.  Georgia did an excellent job of getting the ball into the short corners and finding gaps in the zone.  When UGA players penetrated and drew extra defenders, the Dawgs opted to pass instead of forcing up highly-contested shots.  Georgia dished out 16 team assists, which marks their highest total yet in SEC play.  UGA shot over 45% from the floor, and the Dawgs had four starters finish in double-figures – Yante Maten and Juwan Parker led the way with 21 and 17, respectively.  The Bulldogs also knocked down 40% from beyond the arc, and the majority of those three-pointers came on kick out passes from the paint.  Lastly, UGA valued the basketball, turning it over just 6 times on Tuesday, which is a drastic improvement for a Georgia team that entered this contest average 16 turnovers per conference game.

Solid first half perimeter defense

Vanderbilt gets 40% of its offense from beyond the arc.  The Dores came into Athens making over 40% of its three-point shots in SEC play.  However, UGA held Vandy to just 1 of 9 from the perimeter in the first half, which enabled Georgia to take a 34-25 advantage into the break.  Coach Mark Fox had his team in a lot of match up zone, and the Dawgs’ defenders closed out and contested nearly every Commodore three-point attempt.  The second half was a different story though, as Vandy found its range and connected on 9 of 22 shots from beyond the arc.  The Dores ended up with 10 three’s, which is just below their 10.8 average in SEC games, but they only made 34% of them.  The Dawgs’ ability to contain Vanderbilt from the perimeter in this contest’s first twenty minutes proved crucial, and it may have been the difference in the game.

Composure

Vanderbilt, who only led for 1:35 of this game, had three opportunities to overtake the Dawgs last night.  However, each time the Dores closed the gap, Georgia found a way to respond.  After building up a 14-5 lead with a little over 13 minutes left in the half, UGA’s offense took a breather and scored just 2 points over the next six minutes.  With 7:33 remaining before the break and Vandy trailing 16-11, Yante Maten buried a big three-pointer from the top of the key to extend the UGA lead.

Vandy opened up the second half with a flurry of three-pointers, and after Jeff Roberson hit one from beyond the arc the UGA advantage had been cut to 42-39 with a little over 15 minutes left in the game.  The Dawgs answered, though, as J.J. Frazier and Juwan Parker hit back to back three’s, and Jordan Harris stole a lazy Vandy pass and took it the length of the floor for an electrifying one-handed dunk, putting Georgia up 50-41.

The Dores last effort to catch the Dawgs came late in the game when Riley Lachance sunk a three to trim the UGA lead to 65-60 with 2:17 remaining.  Once again, Coach Fox’s team responded to the pressure, getting the ball into the hands of Yante Maten, who was fouled and made both free throws.  On the ensuing possession, Parker got a steal and was immediately sent to the line, where he too hit both attempts.  With just 1:25 left, UGA had a 69-60 lead that Vandy would not surmount.

 

 

Vanderbilt shuts Georgia down in Nashville

The loss to Florida was bad, but if they could just win the next five games they’d still have a chance to make a push for the NCAA tournament.

This is what I told myself as I made the five and a half hour drive from Athens to Nashville on Friday night.

That wishful thinking was crushed early in Memorial Gym on Saturday, as Georgia fell behind quickly and stayed behind, losing 80-67 to the Vanderbilt Commodores.

Georgia put up another offensive dud today, shooting only 38% from the floor en route to a 67-point performance.  J.J. Frazier (21) and Yante Maten (19) combined for nearly 60% of their team’s output, while the rest of the supporting cast was nowhere to be found.  Kenny Gaines managed only 5 points on a 2 for 10 shooting effort, making it the 4th time in the last 5 games that he has failed to finish in double-figures.

The Dawgs’ offense is becoming increasingly stagnant as the season progresses.  In the early Mark Fox UGA years, Georgia scored regularly on both cuts down the lane and backdoor cuts set up by off-ball screens.  Today, Fox’s team looked completely one-dimensional, relying heavily on pick and rolls, which Vanderbilt eventually got very comfortable defending. The result: UGA scored one point more than its SEC game average of 66 points.

Get this: in conference games, the Dawgs are now averaging the least amount of points per contest in the league.  Team assists, which were once a staple of Mark Fox’s teams, are now hard to come by as UGA is dishing out only 11 per game, ranking them 11th in league in the category in SEC play.  The numbers don’t lie, and at this point, I think it’s safe to say that Fox does not have the talent that he had when he first came on board in Athens.

Georgia has dropped 3 of its last 4 games, and not surprisingly, it has shot under 40% in all three losses.  The Dawgs have become incredibly easy to guard, especially when Yante Maten is not on the floor. Even when Yante is in the game, UGA at most has 3 viable scoring threats, assuming J.J. and Gaines are playing, and that’s just not going to cut it against decent teams.

Georgia’s defense wasn’t much better, though, as they allowed all five Vanderbilt starters to finish in double-figures.  The Dores were led by Wade Baldwin IV’s 17 points as well as Damian Jones, who netted a double-double, scoring 15 to go along with his game -high 16 boards (I should mention that Maten too had a double-double).  On numerous occasions the Vandy guards made passes to wide open bigs, resulting in a string of uncontested dunks.  The Dores shot nearly 46% from the floor, which is a point higher than their SEC game average.

The Dawgs are now 11-0 against teams ranked outside of the RPI Top 100, and 3-11 when playing teams inside it.  Georgia is 2-7 on the road this year, which is bad news considering that they travel to The Plains on Wednesday for a rematch with Auburn.  Today’s loss put UGA one step closer to playing on Thursday of this year’s SEC tournament; losing to the Tigers next week would almost assure it.

 

Dawgs Lose in Overtime 96-94

Ricky McPhee knocked down a pair of free throws with 53 seconds left to put his Georgia Bulldogs up 74-68.  The Dawgs were less than a minute away from earning their first road win of the season, and against a Top 25 team at that.

But Vanderbilt’s senior point guard Jermaine Beal had other plans in mind.  Beal was able to get to the rim and finish on two lay-ups in merely 11 seconds, and following an Andre Walker three-pointer the Commodores were down only 77-75 with 24 ticks left.

The ‘Dores then fouled Dustin Ware, sending him to the line for two shots.

Ware missed them both.

A.J. Ogilvy tipped in a missed Beal shot on the other end, Leslie missed an out of control jumper and the game was going to overtime.

In overtime, Vandy built up a 92-86 lead with 28 seconds left, but Ware knocked down back-to-back three’s and the Dawgs actually ended up with Chris Barnes at the line shooting a free throw with the score 96-94.  Barnes intentionally missed the shot, and Ware was able to track down the offensive board…but with only 0.9 seconds left he had to toss up a near impossible shot that fell short (Leslie grabbed it out of the air and put it in but the buzzer had already sounded).

Had the Dawgs not suffered a defensive let-down in the game’s final 53 seconds, one could go so far as to say that they played a near perfect game.

Georgia shot 46.5% from the field and 47.6% from beyond the arc.  The Dawgs out-rebounded Vandy 35-32, and they only committed 10 turnovers.

The fact that Georgia was able to go into the half down only 5 was an accomplishment within itself.  Trey Thompkins picked up his second foul with 8:15 left in the half, and he didn’t see the floor again until after the break.

The Dawgs had five players score in double-figures, with Travis Leslie leading the way with 22 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists (he also showed up on Sportscenter’s “Top Plays” once again).

The Dawgs are now 4-9 in the SEC, and 12-14 overall.

Mark Fox can add the Vandy game to his team’s collection of heartbreaking SEC losses that they have suffered this season – Ole Miss, Miss St, South Carolina and Arkansas.

It’s mind-boggling to think that Georgia has now lost 5 conference games this year by a total of 14 points.

Georgia has three games remaining on its schedule: Florida and Kentucky at home, and LSU at their place.

If the SEC Tournament were to start today, I’d have to say that I like the Dawgs seed.  Georgia would get Ole Miss in round one (a team that UGA had beat in Athens), and the winner of that game would play Vandy in round two.  Another bonus of having the East sixth seed  is that it keeps Georgia on the opposite side of the bracket from Kentucky.

Ok, that was my attempt to cheer everybody (including myself) up following last night’s nail-biter.