Georgia looks to burst Kentucky’s bubble in Athens

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, the network’s NCAA Tournament guru, has Kentucky currently placed in his “First Four Out” portion of the field, which implies that the Wildcats are riding the NCAA “Bubble” hard. A loss to the Georgia Bulldogs on Thursday night in Athens could certainly put a major damper on the Cats’ postseason hopes, meaning Coach Calipari’s team will probably be treating this game similarly to a playoff match-up.

However, the stakes in tonight’s game are pretty high for the Dawgs as well, who need a win to keep pace with Tennessee (10-7), LSU (9-8) and Arkansas (9-8) if they hope to avoid the dreaded 8-/9-seed game in this year’s SEC Tournament (UGA is in the 9-spot at the moment).

Since losing “Mr. Do-Everything” – freshman Nerlens Noel – Cal’s team has mustered just a 3-3 conference record (if you include the Florida game in which Noel went down with the knee injury). Noel anchored the Kentucky defense, averaging 4.4 blocks and nearly 10 rebounds a game. Over the past five games without Noel, the Cats have allowed SEC opponents to score 70 or more points in four of those games, which is definitely concerning since Kentucky had only allowed three league teams to post 70 points or more over the previous ten games.

Coach Cal’s team has not been able to get it together away from Rupp without the services of their big man, dropping road games at Tennessee and Arkansas (last Saturday). If the Cats want to dance this March, they will have to find a way to sneak out of Stegeman with a win on Thursday.

Offensively, Kentucky’s scoring is extremely balanced, with five players averaging over 8 points per game. Leading the way is freshman guard Archie Goodwin, who is netting a team-best 12.1 points per SEC contest.

For Georgia, Thursday’s game against Kentucky gives the Dawgs another chance to even up their overall record, which currently rests at 14-15. In addition, a victory over the Cats would greatly help UGA in its attempts to jockey for a slightly higher seed than 8 in next week’s SEC Tournament.

With Kentucky’s athleticism, I would be surprised if Kentavious Caldwell-Pope gets many good looks at the basket in this one. Coach Mark Fox will need more aggressive point guard play from freshman Charles Mann, who is coming off a career-high 18 points against Tennessee in game in which he repeatedly attacked the rim off the dribble.

Las Vegas is giving Kentucky a 3.5-point edge in this one, which may provide UGA with a little extra fuel leading up to the game.

While nearly 10,000 people packed into the Steg to see Tennessee last Saturday, I anticipate a near-capacity crowd Thursday night in what should be the most prestigious home game of the season.

Hopefully Georgia is ready.

Georgia vs Kentucky II

On Saturday, the Georgia Bulldogs (14-5; 3-3) will attempt to do something that a visiting team hasn’t done in Rupp Arena since John Calipari took over the reigns at Kentucky – win.

Coach Cal’s Cats boast a 28-game winning streak in Lexington.  At Kentucky (also known as “One and Done U”), they’ve taken the phrase “protect home court” to a whole new level.

Coincidentally, the last time the Wildcats dropped a game at Rupp was on March 4, 2009, to none other than the Georgia Bulldogs.

The Dawgs opened up SEC play this season with a thrilling 77-70 victory over the Cats in Stegeman Coliseum.  Since that game, Georgia has won just two of their last five, and they have dropped a couple of heart-breakers in Athens against Tennessee and Florida.  If the Dawgs hope to finish the season with a winning conference record, they will have to steal a game or two on the road.

Kentucky’s SEC schedule thus far has been a little less daunting than Georgia’s, with games against Auburn (0-6), LSU (2-3), Alabama (4-1) and South Carolina (3-2).  The Cats did suffer a hiccup at Bama, losing 68-66.  But other than that, they have cruised against rather inferior competition.

The Cats have had a week off since their 67-58 victory at South Carolina last Saturday, plenty of time to sit at home and stew about their upcoming game with Georgia.

Kentucky has four players scoring in double-figures in conference play – Terrance Jones, Brandon Knight, Darius Miller and Doron Lamb.  Leading the way is freshman big Terrance Jones (the guy Calipari referred to as a “selfish mother******”), who is pacing the Cats with 21.4 ppg and 8.2 rpg in league games.  Jones is a difficult match-up for Georgia’s Trey Thompkins because of his versatility – he can score the ball from inside and out (40% 3PT in SEC games).

Kentucky’s other freshman phenom is point guard Brandon Knight, who is peppering the SEC stat sheet with 15.8 ppg, 3.2 apg and 2.6 three-point field goals per game (at 43.3%).  He is an extension of Coach Calipari on the court, and his floor leadership is what gets this Kentucky offense going.

If Georgia is going to bust-up Kentucky’s home winning streak, then they must shut down Brandon Knight (again).  In the first meeting between these two teams, Gerald Robinson, Jr.’s defense on Knight was sensational, limiting him to just 10 points (his lowest output of the season in conference play), and not allowing him to connect on a single shot from outside the arc.

Robinson’s performance in the Florida game was probably his worst as a Bulldog.  He finished the game with only 7 points (the least he’s scored in an SEC game this year), and he had more turnovers (6) and personal fouls (4) than assists (3).

Robinson must put the Florida game behind him, because his team is going to need him to dominate the frosh Knight on Saturday.  GR2 scored 17 points and only committed 2 fouls when these two teams met in Athens – a similar performance this weekend would be perfect.

In their three SEC losses this season (Vandy, Tennessee, Florida), Georgia’s offense has looked a little too stagnant – almost robotic.  With the way that Fox’s triangle offense is designed, either Jeremy Price or Chris Barnes (whoever is in the game) receives the ball at the top of the key to begin the motion.  Because neither of these players is a threat to score unless they are within five feet of the basket, their man can sag off and stay in the paint – making it nearly impossible to get the ball into Trey Thompkins on the block.  Even if the ball does get down to Trey, the double-team can arrive that much quicker with the extra defender already in the paint.

Coach Fox has been blessed to have two very skilled offensive players at his disposal in Trey Thompkins and Gerald Robinson, Jr.  Why not have a couple of variations in the offense that allow these two to play a little two-man game?  If Robinson and Thompkins run a pick-and-roll from the wing position, good things will happen (just like they did for Florida’s Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton last Tuesday).

And of course, Georgia has to get better defensive rebounding from someone other than Thompkins.  In the Florida game, Trey brought down 13 boards, 8 of which came on defense.  Price and Barnes COMBINED for just 4 total defensive rebounds, enabling Florida’s bigs to clean-up on the offensive glass in the two overtimes.  Both of these guys are big kids (6’8″ and 250+ lbs), and there is no excuse for the way that they got pushed around underneath by Florida’s forwards.  Kentucky has a big frontline as well, and they are averaging nearly 14 offensive rebounds a game in the SEC.  If Price and Barnes aren’t physical on Saturday, Kentucky’s bigs will have a field day on the offensive glass.

By losing on Tuesday, Georgia put themselves in a tight spot at 3-3 in the conference, with more road games (6) remaining than home games (4).  Against Kentucky, the Dawgs will be facing the possibility of going below .500 in the league for the first time this season.

The good news is that Georgia is 2-0 this year when coming off of an SEC loss, and they are 4-1 in true road games.  The Dawgs responded emphatically to their losses against Vanderbilt and Tennesse by blowing out the state of Mississippi (Ole Miss and Missy St).

I don’t expect Georgia to blow out Kentucky on Saturday (4pm on ESPN).  The Cats will undoubtedly be looking to avenge their earlier loss to Georgia.

But I do think that the Dawgs will play with a lot of emotion in Rupp, and I expect to see a very strong effort from Coach Fox’s team.

Dawgs Face Stiff Test in Kentucky

The last time the Georgia Bulldogs (11-2) men’s basketball team beat a Top 10 opponent was on Saturday February 14, 2004.

Do you know who the Dawgs beat that day?

The #4 ranked Kentucky Wildcats.

This Saturday Georgia will have the opportunity to knock off another Top 10 opponent when the #10 Kentucky Wildcats (12-2) roll into Athens (Georgia is currently receiving exactly one vote in that same AP poll).

Kentucky was projected to finish first in the SEC East this season, and after 14 games, it looks like that prediction could come to fruition.  The Cats are in the midst of a seven-game winning streak, and they have already knocked off three ranked teams (Washington, Notre Dame and Louisville).

The 2011 Kentucky team is different from the 2010 squad, which sent five players to the NBA.  The dribble-drive motto of last year’s team has been replaced by a new group of Cats that both prefer and can shoot it from the outside.  The Cats are currently 8th in the nation in three-point percentage at 41.9%, and they are netting over 8 three-pointers a game (1st in the conference).  Scoring has not been a problem for Coach Calipari’s team as they are ranked 18th in the country at 80.7 ppg (which is also first in the SEC).

Coach Cal basically goes with a seven-man rotation, with his starting five gobbling up a majority of the minutes.  The Cats’ starting backcourt is highlighted by freshman sensation Brandon Knight (18.3 ppg), along with juniors DeAndre Liggins (9.5 ppg) and Darius Miller (9.4 ppg).  Brandon Knight, a preseason All-SEC First Team selection, is leading his team in both scoring and assists (3.9 apg), while shooting a robust 39.8% from beyond the arc.  He is one of the best guards in the country, and this will likely be his only year of tenure under Coach Calipari.  Knight is so dangerous because he can hurt teams from the outside as well as in the lane – pick your poison folks.

Holding down the post is fellow freshman phenom, Terrance Jones, who was just recently named to the John R. Wooden Award Midseason 30 list.  Jones is averaging nearly a double-double every game at 17.1 ppg and 9.1 rpg – he has 5 double-doubles on the season.  He can score the ball from inside and out, and he is quite agile for a 6’8″ big.  Trey Thompkins needs to be careful when guarding the quicker Jones as to avoid picking up any cheap fouls.

Joining Jones in the frontcourt is senior forward Josh Harrellson, who is steadily improving each week, earning last week’s SEC Player of the Week Honor for his performances against Coppin State and Lousiville.  At 6’10” and 275lbs, Harrellson is a load inside, averaging 7.1 ppg and 9.4 rpg this season.  He has eight games already this season in which he has grabbed 10+ rebounds.

The Cats get great bench scoring from freshman sharp-shooter Doron Lamb.  Lamb is averaging 14.1 ppg and shooting a blistering 52.6% from three-point range.  The highlight of his season thus far came on December 22nd against Winthrop, a game in which he connected on 7 of 8 from beyond the arc en route to a career-high 32 points.  When Lamb is on the court, Georgia better be fully aware of his location or he will make them pay dearly.

This Kentucky team is the best team that Georgia will play all season.  They are tall, athletic and they score and rebound well (40.5 boards per game, first in the conference).  However, there is a slight chink in the Cats’ armor.  Both of their losses this season have come away from Lexington – Connecticut in the Maui Invitational and at North Carolina.  The common theme in both of these Wildcat losses: Terrance Jones was in foul trouble.  Against Connecticut, Jones picked up two fouls early and was forced to sit for a portion of the first half, enabling the Huskies to build up a 50-29 lead at the break (he finished the game with 4 fouls).  In the Cats’ 75-73 loss in Chapel Hill, Jones was in foul trouble the entire game before fouling out with 3 minutes remaining, finishing with just 9 points (his lowest output of the season).

If the Dawgs are going to be successful on Saturday, they have to drive the ball at Terrence Jones.  In the first nine games of this season, Gerald Robinson, Jr. averaged 14.9 ppg and 5.4 apg.  However, in the past five games GR2’s numbers have fallen significantly, scoring just 9.0 ppg and dishing out only 3.6 apg.  For whatever reason, Robinson has lost some his tenacity on offense.  On Saturday, Mark Fox will need GR2 to assert himself and push the ball into the lane.  Robinson can draw fouls on both Knight and Jones if he becomes the aggressor.

Kentucky is going to make three-point shots, you can bet on that.  Georgia has been dismal from beyond the arc this season and they are currently last in the SEC in both three-point shooting (30.9%) and three-point field goals made (4.2).  Neither Dustin Ware or Sherrard Brantley has made a three-point shot in the last three games, missing all 10 of their attempts.  One of these guys (hopefully Ware) has to get it together and knock down a couple three’s on Saturday.  If the Dawgs don’t have a legit three-point threat on the floor, it will allow Kentucky to sag down more on Thompkins and Price.

The atmosphere in Stegeman Coliseum last season for the Kentucky game was electric, and I expect Saturday to be no different.

The Kentucky football team will be taking on Pittsburgh at 12pm Saturday in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Alabama, so there might not be quite as many Cat fans in the Steg as usual (which is fine by me).

Georgia is currently in the midst of an eight-game winning streak, and they have yet to drop a game in Athens this season.  However, the level of competition that the Dawgs have played up to this point has been slightly below the talent that Coach Cal will put on the court Saturday.  Georgia hasn’t beaten a ranked team this season, with their biggest win being either UAB, Colorado or Georgia Tech – take your pick.

We are going to learn just how good Georgia really is after the Kentucky game, and we will know if they are legitimate SEC contenders or merely conference pretenders.

Dawgs Look to Tame ‘Cats

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Will Cousins jump or get out of the way if he is in the direct path of another Leslie flush?

Before the Kentucky Wildcats took on the Tennessee Volunteers last Saturday, Coach John Calipari made headlines with the media by stating that winning the SEC title meant “nothing” to him.  He explained that his focus is (and always has been) on getting the best seed possible for the NCAA Tournament.

I guess it didn’t mean too much to his team either, as Tennessee buried the Wildcats 74-65, leaving the door still slightly open for Vanderbilt to claim the SEC crown.

I should think that Mark Fox’s Georgia Bulldogs will have the full attention of Coach Cal’s Cats, since a loss to the Dawgs on Wednesday could leave Kentucky with a somewhat uneasy feeling about their NCAA seed status.

The good news for Kentucky is that they have only lost twice this season, and the last time they lost (at South Carolina) the ‘Cats followed it up by whipping Vanderbilt 85-72.  In fact, before losing to Tennessee last Saturday, Kentucky was riding an eight-game win streak.  Maybe the occasional loss helps to wake this young team up?

Kentucky’s roster only features one player (sophomore Darius Miller) that is not currently projected to be a lottery pick in the 2010 and 2011 NBA Drafts.  According NBA draft analysts, freshman phenoms John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins will go first and fourth, respectively, and senior forward Patrick Patterson will be taken with the tenth pick in the 2010 Draft.  In the 2011 Draft, analysts project that fellow freshman Eric Bledsoe will be taken as the fifth pick overall.

I’m sorry, but how did these guys lose two games?

Kentucky leads the SEC in the following (numerous) categories – scoring margin (+10.1), field goal percentage defense (38.5%), 3-point percentage defense (27.1%), rebounding margin (+8.0), offensive rebounds (14.9/game), defensive rebounds (27.6/game) and last but not least, conference wins (12).

Kentucky is “scary good” on defense.  The ‘Cats height (tallest roster in basketball) and superior athleticism enable them to pressure teams relentlessly.  And even more importantly, they rebound the basketball well.  Meaning, against Kentucky you get one shot and then you’re done on offense.

Calipari’s four future lottery picks are the ones that do most of the scoring on offense.

In the backcourt, Wall leads the way with 16.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists in conference games (a lot of people overlook his excellent passing game).  Bledsoe gives the ‘Cats 10.8 points and 1.6 steal a night in SEC play.

The Kentucky frontcourt features the double-headed monster that is DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson.  Both of these players are big and physical when they get the ball down on the block.

In SEC games, Cousins is averaging 17.1 points, 11.1 rebounds and shooting 54% from the field.  He is probably the front-runner for the SEC Player of the Year award (his main competition is his teammate John Wall).  His partner down low, Patrick Patterson, is scoring 13.0 points, grabbing 6.8 boards and making 53.4% of his attempts from the floor (he’s also knocking down 40.8% of his three-point tries on the season).

Sophomores Darius Miller, Darnell Dodson, DeAndre Liggins and freshman Daniel Orton are Kentucky’s “role” players.  Miller, Dodson and Liggins are all knocking down over 35% of their shots from beyond the arc this year.  At 6’10” and 255 lbs, Orton serves as another big body that Calipari can run into the game to alter shots and grab rebounds.

In the first meeting between these two teams in Lexington, Georgia surprisingly went into the half with a 35-34 lead.  However, the ‘Cats took control late in the game by feeding Cousins inside and riding his offense to the 76-68 victory (he finished with 16 points).  It is truly amazing that UGA was able to be in this game at all considering that the Dawgs turned it over 26 times!

Keys to the Game

Make Them Shoot

Bruce Pearl used several kinds of zone defenses to force Kentucky to shoot more from the outside in the Vols victory over the ‘Cats last Saturday.  In fact, many of Kentucky’s opponents these days seem to be showing them a lot of zone.  Guess what?  The ‘Cats are still shooting it.

Kentucky averages nearly 19 three-point attempts a game in SEC play, however, they only make 29.1% of them.  Earlier this week, Coach Calipari had this to say about his team facing more zone:

“It’s funny, because everybody has the ‘This is how you play them.’ Yeah, you hold your nose and close your eyes and hope we can’t make any shots. Yeah, that’s a good way to play. If we make shots — if we go 5-for-22, which stinks — we win going away.”

Calipari comes off as just a tad bit arrogant here, don’t you think?

Against Tennessee though, Cal’s squad only made 2 of 22 three-point shots.  In their past 4 games, Kentucky has made only 16 of 73 three-point attempts (22%).

The Dawgs will give themselves a much better chance at winning on Wednesday by taking Coach Pearl’s lead and showing Kentucky a lot of zone defense.

Hack-A-Cat

In the first game between these two teams, Georgia fouled Kentucky 25 times (Ajax, Barnes and Price all fouled out).  The ‘Cats shot 33 free throws, making 22 of them (that’s 66.7%).  On the season, Kentucky ranks 9th in the SEC in free throw percentage at 67.1%.

I would love to see Coach Fox employ the same strategy on Wednesday.  Not only does fouling force a bad FT shooting team like Kentucky to earn points at the charity stripe, but it could also frustrate the hot-headed Cousins.  DeMarcus is known for having quite the temper, and having Georgia’s bigs rough him up in the paint shouldn’t do much to keep him calm and under control.

Slow Pace

If the Dawgs can successfully run a zone and foul a lot inside, then chances are the tempo of this game should be nice and slow…which is exactly what Georgia wants.

Georgia does not want to have this game turn into a track meet, or it would be to Kentucky’s advantage.  The last thing Mark Fox (and the entire fan base at Stegeman Coliseum) wants to see is John Wall and Eric Bledsoe running up and down the court for easy dunks and lay-ups.

A large part of ensuring that this doesn’t happen will rely on the strength of Georgia’s guard play.  The Dawgs’ guards must be able to handle the Kentucky pressure and get the ball up the court.  Once the ball passes the half court line, hopefully Georgia will be able to milk at least 25 seconds off the shot clock before shooting.

Notes

Georgia has now won 4 straight games  in Athens, and they are 12-3 at the Steg on the season.

This is the last home game of the season for UGA, and thus will be Senior Night for Ricky McPhee, Albert Jackson and Tyler Whatley.

I’m so happy that Ricky McPhee decided to transfer to Georgia, and I only wish that we could have seen him play for two more years.

Albert Jackson was an instrumental part of the Dawgs 2008 SEC Tournament Championship, starting every game and averaging 7.3 points and 6.5 rebounds during that long and glorious weekend.

The game tips off Wednesday night at 8:00PM EST, and will once again be shown on the Peachtree TV channel.

I’ll be heading up to the game with some friends after work…anyone else going?

Anybody think the Dawgs can win?

Dawgs Open SEC Play with….eeeekkk! Kentucky

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Kentucky should enjoy their success now, because it won't be long before the NCAA Rules Committee comes knocking on their door...

Georgia shocked the college basketball world on Tuesday night when they knocked off #17 Georgia Tech at home in Athens.

Saturday, the Dawgs begin SEC play with a date in Lexington to take on the undefeated #3 Kentucky Wildcats (where’s Florida Atlantic when you need them?).

These days you can’t watch a segment of ESPN’s Sportscenter without seeing something pertaining to the Cats’  undefeated season , or another gravity-defying dunk by freshman sensation John Wall.  Since Kentucky signed renowned coach/rule-breaker John “Calamari” Calipari (he left his last two programs in fraudulent ruins – UMASS & Memphis) the Cats have been at the forefront of college basketball’s media frenzy.

Kentucky super-Frosh John Wall is leading the team in scoring (17.2 points/game) and highlights (5.4/game).  What many people don’t realize about Wall is that he is a great passer too, netting 7.3 assists per game.  Speaking of “netting”, Mr. Wall is projected to be the first pick in next year’s NBA draft which will most likely send him to the New Jersey Nets…so he better cherish all this winning now cause last I check New Jersey was 3-32.

Kentucky’s frontcourt features two of the better forwards in the SEC in junior Patrick Patterson (16.7 points/8.3 reb) and freshman DeMarcus “Big Cuz”  Cousins (15.4 points/9.6 reb).  What’s even more impressive about Cousins is that he is producing these numbers in only 19.2 minutes a game…Big Cuz has a little bit of a “foul problem” (don’t worry he is taking an Anger Management class to control his temper) averaging 3.2 personal fouls a contest.

This UK squad is actually the tallest in the country going by average player height.  Maybe that’s why Kentucky is 11th in the country in total offensive rebounds, and pulling down nearly 43 total rebounds a night.  If the Dawgs defensive rebound as poorly on Saturday as they did against the Yellow Jackets they are going to get run out of the gym (there are actually several other scenarios in which they could get run out of the gym but I am trying to be positive here).

Not to sound like a defeatist, but when analyzing Kentucky it’s really hard to find weaknesses.  They are 15th in the nation in offensive scoring at 82.8 points a game, and they are shooting lights out – 50.2% FG; 40.6% 3PT.   Their defense has been stingy, surrendering only 64.3 per game.

They are 15-0 despite playing an EXTREMELY difficult schedule already which included games against Stanford, North Carolina, UCONN, Indiana and Louisville.

I am going to mix up the format a bit for this one…instead of “Keys to the Game” I think we will go with “Things That Could Help”.

“Things That Could Help”

1.  Get in the Zone – Even though Kentucky is a good shooting team, I still think that UGA needs to play more zone defense than man-to-man and hope that the Cats are cold.  The Dawgs just don’t have the personnel to match up with Kentucky in a man defense…as much as I love Ricky McPhee, I would hate to see him trying to guard Wall out on the perimeter.  Thompkins could hold his own against Patterson or Big Cuz, but one of these guys would then get a very favorable match up against either Jackson, Barnes or Price.

2.  Temper, Temper – As mentioned above, Big Cuz can be somewhat of a hothead and routinely gets into foul trouble.  If anyone watched the Louisville-Kentucky game, then you probably saw Cousins give a flagrant elbow to the head of a Louisville player while wrestling for the ball (unfortunately the referees didn’t see it and Cuz stayed in the game).  I would love to see Albert Jackson or Chris Barnes get really physical with Cousins from the start, and maybe frustrate him into some cheap fouls.

3. Beyond the Arc – UGA won the game at Rupp Arena last year 90-85 because they were on fire from 3-point range.  Georgia made 11 or 16 three point attempts en route to the win (they also shot 50% from the field).  I realize that this is a difficult performance to repeat, but when you are playing the #3 team in the country you have to bring your best game.  Hopefully McPhee, Ware and Thompkins are on (fingers crossed) or things could derail early (freshman Ebuka Anyaorah has also been shooting the ball well lately averaging nearly 6 points off the bench in his last 3 outings).

The game will tip off at 4pm Saturday in the confines of historic Rupp Arena.  It will be televised on the SEC Network (which I believe is Peachtree TV) and on the radio at 750AM.

Any other thoughts?