Old Spice Classic

Hopefully GR2 brings his running shoes to the Notre Dame game

The Georgia Bulldogs are 3-0 for the first time since the 2007-2008 season, or as some people call it, “The season that ended with a tornado ripping through Atlanta, forcing the SEC Tournament into Georgia Tech’s gym and resulting in the Dawgs winning the championship and earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament”.

But this 3-0 start has been far more impressive because the Dawgs are doing it without the SEC Preseason Player of the Year, Trey Thompkins.

And yes, Trey is listed as “doubtful” for this Thursday’s game against Notre Dame in the first round of the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Florida.

Yet, ESPN analyst Andy Katz (my favorite ESPN analyst of all-time) is sticking with Georgia to win this holiday tournament.  Matter of fact, so are two of Katz’s colleagues – Jay Williams and Fran Fraschilla.

It’s too bad that Georgia didn’t get that same kind of love in either of this week’s national polls – Georgia remained unranked in both the AP (receiving 28 votes) and the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll (receiving 1 vote).  The head-scratcher here is that in last week’s polls, the Dawgs were receiving 42 votes in the AP and 4 votes in the Coaches – so they are being punished for winning without their best player?

Luckily for Georgia, the college basketball polls aren’t nearly as significant as the college football polls – but it would be nice to crack one of those Top 25’s since it hasn’t happened in nearly seven years.

The best thing that the Dawgs can do his head down to Orlando and win some ball games.

And that starts with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (3-0).

The Irish finished 23-12 last year (their 5th straight 20-win season) with a 10-8 record in Big East play.  However, they did suffer two key losses from that roster – PF Luke Harangody, the team’s leading scorer (21.8 ppg) and rebounder (9.1 rpg) and PG Tory Jackson who led the team with 5.3 assists and also chipped in 9.6 ppg.

Heading into this season, analysts felt that Notre Dame had enough depth in the frontcourt to replace Harangody’s points and rebounds.  The big concern for the Irish was in their backcourt, where they would be breaking in a new point guard.

Through the first three games, Notre Dame freshman point guard Eric Atkins has put a lot of those concerns to rest.  Atkins, a McDonald’s All-American nominee, has played well for coach Mike Brey, averaging 10.3 ppg, dishing out 4 assists/game and shooting a blistering 62.5% from beyond the three-point line.

Joining Atkins in the backcourt is senior guard Ben Hansbrough, the younger brother of Tyler “Psycho T” Hansbrough.  Young Ben has been lighting it up from beyond the arc, hitting 15 of 25 three-point attempts (60%) and leading this team in both scoring (20.3 ppg) and assists (4.7).

The Notre Dame frontcourt is made up of three seniors and anchored by 6’8″ Tim Abromaitas, who had a “breakout season” last year, averaging 16.1 ppg and shooting 42.9% from three-point range.  Abromaitas is out to a strong start this season, scoring 14.7 ppg and grabbing 7.3 boards despite hitting only 4 of 24 from beyond the arc (let’s hope he doesn’t find his touch against Georgia).  He is a nightmare match-up for opposing bigs because he has the ability to score both inside and out – Price and Barnes are going to have their work cut out for them.

Tyrone Nash (11.3ppg / 7.0 rpg) and Carleton Scott (9.0 ppg / 8.0 rpg) round out the rest of the Irish frontcourt.

Senior wingman 6’8″ Scott Martin – a transfer from Purdue – gives Coach Brey a quality sixth man he can look to for a little bit of everything (6.5ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.5 apg) off the bench.

Even though Notre Dame is 3-0, it’s hard to judge just how good they really are because their schedule thus far has resembled “Cupcake Row” – Georgia Southern, Liberty and Chicago State.  The Dawgs will no doubt be the first real test of the season for this Irish team.

However, Notre Dame will be the best team that Georgia has played so far as well – four seniors in the starting five, balanced scoring and rebounding and a proven coach in Mike Brey (the Irish have made it to the postseason in each of Brey’s 10 seasons).

Georgia‘s last-second win at Saint Louis was definitely a great confidence booster for a team that didn’t win a road game last season (I was at a family trip in Dahlonega, GA and unfortunately unable to listen – I did follow fervently on my phone under the dinner table and nearly kicked the person across the table from me when I refreshed the screen and saw 61-59).

But this team must clean up the turnovers (17 @ Saint Louis and 18 vs Colorado).  Gerald Robinson, Jr. (GR2) had 8 assists at Saint Louis – including the dish to Jeremy Price that led to the game-winning bucket – but he nearly matched that total with 7 turnovers.  If Georgia is going to find success down in Orlando, Coach Fox is going to need smarter play out of GR2, who has been the Dawgs’ most pleasant surprise of this young season – 16.7 ppg and a team-leading 5.7 apg.

This is a senior-laden Notre Dame team that is only turning the ball over 10 times a game, meaning that they play smart with the ball and don’t give their opponents too many extra possessions.

This game is going to present quite a rebounding challenge for the Dawgs‘ frontcourt of Price, Travis Leslie (G/F) and Chris Barnes.  The Irish are grabbing 49 boards a game to Georgia’s 34, and on top of that they have a serious size advantage inside – their roster is full of 6’8″ and 6’9″ bigs.

Barnes was productive again off the bench for Coach Fox against Saint Louis, hauling down 5 rebounds in just 14 minutes of play.  He’s averaging 7.0 rebounds in the last two games and needs to continue to attack the glass going forward with Thompkins on the sidelines.

Notre Dame will most likely be looking to slow the pace of this game down, allowing them to pound the ball inside on the Dawgs defensively.  It will be up to GR2, Travis Leslie and Dustin Ware to push the ball and try to turn this game into a bit of a track meet because the Dawgs certainly have a quickness advantage.

I think the key to this game is going to lie in the hands (or legs) of Travis Leslie.  Leslie has been sensational for Coach Fox so far this season, leading the team in points (18.0), rebounds (8.3) and minutes (32.0).

However, it’s not just his offense that the Dawgs will rely on Thursday night – they are going to need a great defensive effort from Leslie as well.  I am assuming that the 6’7″ Connor Nolte will match up with one of Notre Dame’s bigs (maybe Carleton Scott?) because they have so much height inside (6’8″, 6’8″ and 6’7″).

This will leave Leslie to guard the Irish’s leading scorer, Ben Hansbrough.  Hansbrough is an excellent shooter, and guarding excellent shooters is difficult.  Leslie will have to be aware of where “Psycho B” is on the court at all times, which will be a tiring endeavor.

The Old Spice Classic presents another great opportunity for this Georgia team to continue building its NCAA tournament resume.  Any wins that the Dawgs can secure away from The Steg will go a long way in convincing tournament committee members that they deserve a bid in March (especially if they can continue to win without Trey).

The game will be televised at 7:00PM EST on ESPN2, meaning that this game (and tournament) will give Georgia some much-needed national exposure.  Sounds like a nice thing to mention to recruiting prospects as well, doesn’t it?

Hopefully the Dawgs can make playing in a preseason tournament a regular occurrence in the future.  Winning a few games at the Old Spice Classic would certainly help.

Battle of the Bulldogs

This Saturday, the Georgia Bulldogs (8-7) travel to Starkville in search of their first SEC win of 2010 to take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs (13-3).  Finally! The Dawgs get to play an unranked team (although Miss St is receiving votes in both polls).

Mississippi State returns all five starters from last year’s team that accomplished the following: won the SEC Tournament, earned an NCAA Tournament bid and beat Georgia twice (once in Athens and once in the SEC Tourney).  Needless to say, expectations of a bigger season in 2010 are alive and well in Starkville (upsetting in-state rival Ole Miss last Saturday probably helped too).

Miss State is led by 7th-year senior center (just kidding) Jarvis Varnado, who is most famous around the conference for his shot-blocking ability.  This year has been no different.  Varnado is swatting 5 shots a game and has already had two 8-block games.  Remember his 10 block performance he had against UGA in 2008?  Let’s hope that he doesn’t come close to that total again this Saturday.

Varnado sets the tone for this Mississippi State defense which is tops in the SEC, surrendering only 59.6 points per game (this ranks #23 in the country in team scoring defense) and holding opponents to 35.9% from the field (also best in the conference).  Guess what?  Those are not the only two categories that State is leading the SEC in…they are also grabbing 42.2 rebounds a game.  So they play great defense and rebound well (which means they are limiting teams to only one shot), sounds like the Dawgs have their work cut out for them.

On offense, Miss State uses Varnado’s size inside to play a high-low game and open up the perimeter for shots.  The Bulldogs are (once again) leading the SEC in team 3-pointers made at nearly 10 a game, and in 3-point percentage at 41%.

State’s 3pt gun-slingers include juniors Ravern Johnson (14.6 pts), Kodi Augustus (9.5pts), Barry Stewart (11.1 pts) and sophomore point guard Dee Bost (11.6 pts).  Augustus is the only player mentioned above that is listed as a “forward”, but even he tends to lurk outside the blocks and look for jump shots.  But hey, when you have Jarvis Varnado owning the paint (13.9 pts/10.9 rbds a night) I guess that’s a luxury the other players enjoy.

What Georgia Should Look to Do:

1. Take Jarvis Out of the Game – In their win over Ole Miss last Saturday, the Bulldogs (MSU) used a 2-3 zone defense in the second half to control the tempo of the game and outscore the Rebels 43-33 en route to an 80-75 win.  The Dawgs cannot allow this to happen.  Mississippi States wants a slow-paced game so that they can pack in their zone and let Varnado have ownership of the paint.  UGA needs to get Travis Leslie and Ricky McPhee running the court from the start – the quicker the balls transitions to the other end, the less time Jarvis has to get back on defense.

2. Man Defense, give it to my man – Should Rick Stansbury be so bold and allow his Bulldogs to play man-to-man against Georgia, UGA should look to get the ball to Thompkins nearly every time.  If Trey can get the ball and square up to the basket from about 15′-18′ out, I don’t think that Varnado can guard him off the dribble in space.

Las Vegas has Mississippi State favored over the Dawgs by a whopping 14.5 points!  Guess the odds-makers think UGA is heading to Starkville to lay an egg.

The game tips off at 3:00pm EST and will be televised on ESPN2.  If you don’t have a TV or you haven’t paid Comcast in a while you can always listen for free on 750AM.

UGA (4-3) at St. John’s (6-1) in the DirectTV SEC/Big East Invitational in New York, NY at 7:00PM EST on ESPN2

The Dawgs have got their work cut out for them tonight.  Vegas has the Red Storm favored by 11.5 which basically means that they don’t think UGA has a chance.  St. John’s is receiving votes in both the AP & Coaches polls, and they are currently ranked 4th in CBS Sportsline’s RPI.

Unfortunately for Georgia  the site that was chosen for the game (Madison Square GardenSEC/Big East Invitational) is actually where St. John’s plays HALF of their regular season home games (the other half are played on their campus at Carnesecca Arena in Queens, NY)…and call me crazy, but I don’t see many UGA fans making the trip to “The Big Apple” to watch this one.  I am going to go out on a limb and guess that a majority of the people in the stands will be cheering for the Red Storm.

This experienced St. John’s team (they return all five starters from last year’s squad) has been tested early in the season, and for the most part they have been successful.    They have already beaten Temple and Siena (who won the MAAC the last two years and should contend to win it again); the Red Storm travel to Cameron Indoor Stadium and lost to Duke 80-71 in a competitive game.   This game is going to be treated with extreme importance to the Johnnies…they know that they need to accumulate as many non-conference wins as possible before getting into their Big East schedule if they want to be considered for the NCAA Tournament at the end of the season (and they do have a real shot of making the tournament).

Who on the Red Storm should worry you if you are a Dawgs fan?

Jr. Guard/Forward DJ Kennedy is a superb athlete who can score inside and out.  He is currently averaging 17.7 points per game and shooting a robust 44.8% from beyond the arc.

Junior Guard Dwight Hardy can also fill it up from three-point land, shooting a solid 37.5%.  Hardy is a native of Bronx, NY, and during high school he built quite a reputation as an amazing street ball player in the Harlem Summer Leagues….point being, he isn’t just a shooter.  He likes to take it to the rim and score off the dribble as well.

Junior Forward Sean Evans is a big body (6’8″, 255lbs) and probably St. John’s best inside player.  He averages  10.0 points/7 rebounds a game, and prides himself on being a very versatile defender.  He will most likely be matched up on Thompkins and will be looking to frustrate him early and often.

Ok, Ok…Enough about St. John’s.  Let’s turn the focus over to Georgia, and what needs to be done for them to win the game.

UGA’s “Keys to the Game

  • Trey All Day (and Night): “Big time players make big time plays in big time games” – one of the oldest clichés in sports.  However, for young Trey Thompkins this couldn’t be a better motto going into tonight’s game.  He will be playing in one of the most famed venues in all of basketball in Madison Square Garden against a storied St. John’s program.   He is being handed a wonderful opportunity to show the country his talents on ESPN2’s prime time slot.  He cannot have another 0 for 6 performance like he did against Virginia Tech last Sunday.  Georgia is 1-3 this season in games when Trey scores under 15.
  • Slow it Down: This certainly will not be the case in a lot of games this season for the Dawgs, but I really feel like they should do their best to keep this a half-court game.  St. John’s will want to turn it into a track meet so that they can free up Kennedy & Hardy in the open court and allow them to operate in space.  UGA has a slight size advantage and can possibly win the battle on the boards with Thompkins, Jackson, Price, Barnes & Leslie crashing.
  • Ware & McPhee for 3!!!: The Dawgs really need these two to come out of the gates knocking down some buckets from outside the arc.  The better they shoot, the more the Red Storm defense will have to shade its guards towards the perimeter – leaving Thompkins with more chances to play one-on-one in the paint.

I expect to see Mark Fox’s team play with more fire than they have yet this season.  This UGA basketball team lives in anonymity even on its own campus because of the prestigious juggernaut that is Georgia Football.   Tonight’s game will give them a rare “spotlight”, and hopefully they can seize the opportunity!

Will History Repeat Itself?

1983 UGA Men's Final Four Team

The year was 1983…

A great year for movies…Ralphie shot his eye out in “A Christmas Story“, Al Pacino became a gangster icon in “Scarface” & Tom Cruise dazzled us in his tighty-whities in “Risky Business“.

The music released that year was unbelievable, with hit songs like “Come On Eileen“, “Little Red Corvette“, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” & “Mr. Roboto“.

Many people were still just getting used to their stone-washed jeans, big hair, ray-ban sunglasses and a nightlife that didn’t include disco.

The University of Georgia’s basketball team, however, was en route to the best finish in school history, finishing the season 24-10 and reaching the Final Four of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.  The Dawgs were led by All-American guard Vern Fleming, All-SEC Center Terry Fair  and coached by UGA icon Hugh Durham.

In the Sweet Sixteen round of the tournament, Georgia was slated to play St. John’s University (a basketball powerhouse at the time).  St. John’s was the #1 seed in the East Region and a heavy favorite to win the tournament.  The Johnnies  were led by Big East Player of the Year & NBA Hall of Famer, Chris Mullin.

Terry Fair put on a sensational performance scoring 27 points and nabbing 9 rebounds while playing all 40 minutes of the game, leading the Dawgs to a 70-67 upset of the Red Storm.  UGA went on to win two more games before losing a heart-breaker to NC State in the Final Four round of the tournament.

Tomorrow night the 2009 versions of the Bulldogs and Red Storm will meet again in Madison Square Garden as part of the SEC/Big East Challenge.  The game be shown on ESPN2 in the 7PM Prime Time slot.

Hopefully history repeats itself…

Was anyone reading the blog at the UGA/St. John’s game in 1983? Or watching on TV?  I was only 3+ years old at the time so I didn’t get to watch it myself, but I would love to hear any comments about the game from someone who saw it live.