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.

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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.

 

Georgia travels to Vandy, trying to get above .500 in conference

With only four conference games remaining, the 2013 SEC Basketball Tournament picture is still not yet clear. One thing is very clear, however, and that is that the Georgia Bulldogs (13-14,7-7) definitely want to avoid the 8 or 9 seeds of this year’s tournament because the teams slotted in those positions will most likely be heading towards a Friday matchup with the highly-ranked Florida Gators.

If the tournament started today, the Dawgs would be rematching LSU in the dreaded 8/9 game at 1PM on Thursday.

If UGA wants to avoid Florida, then they must find a way to win several of their last four games, starting on Wednesday night in Nashville where they will take on the Vanderbilt Commodores. The Dawgs have not had a lot of success playing at Vandy over the past decade, registering just one win (2006) in ten attempts. For whatever reason, Georgia historically struggles with either the ‘Dores raised floor, behind the goal benches or a combination of both.

Although, this Vandy team is not the same calibre of squad that Coach Kevin Stallings has had on the floor in year’s past. This season the Commodores are 11-15 overall and 5-9 in conference play, placing them at 11th in the league. Lately though, Vandy has been improving, notching 3 wins in their past 5 games, including a 72-31 road drubbing of Missy State last Saturday.

Similarly to Georgia, Coach Stallings team has trouble scoring in SEC games, averaging only 60.4 points (to UGA’s 58.9). Vanderbilt’s offense lives and dies with the three-ball, tossing up over 22 shots from beyond the arc per game. Unfortunately for Stallings, it’s been a lot more “die” for his team than “live” with that strategy.

Vanderbilt’s dependence on the three may be related to their inability to score closer to the basket. Of all the 347 teams competing in Division I, only three have made fewer two-point field goals than Vandy’s 343 on the year.

To be fair though, UGA has only done slightly better, making 386 two-pointers, which is 325th in the nation in that category.

But in games where the Commodores are stroking it from the perimeter, they have been tough for opponents to handle. Vandy is 4-2 in SEC contests in which they make over 8 three-pointers, including a win over Arkansas – a team that recently knocked off UGA.

Georgia’s perimeter defense, which has been suspect this season, must be stronger if the Dawgs hope to steal one in Nashville. In SEC play, UGA ranks 11th in the league in three-point percentage defense, allowing teams to make over 35% of their attempts.

That effort probably won’t get it done for Coach Mark Fox’s team on Wednesday night.

Dawgs knock Missy State off NCAA bubble, advance to the second round

Following Jalen Steele’s fourth three-pointer, Georgia’s lead, which had once been 13 points, had evaporated to just a 60-57 advantage with 3:50 remaining in the game.

On the ensuing possession, Donte Williams shot missed, but thankfully for Georgia, Nemanja Djurisic was in position to secure his fifth offensive rebound and finish the stick-back.

Nemi then got fouled by Mississippi State after forcing a steal, and he calmly stepped up to the free throw line and knocked down both shots, putting his team up 64-57 with only 1:38 left.

Georgia was able to secure the victory from this point, walking away from the first round of the SEC tournament with a 71-61 win over Mississippi State (their second of the season).

Neme, who recorded his second 10+ rebounding effort in as many days, finished the game with 11 points and 12 rebounds.

He was one of five Bulldogs to end the game in double-figures with Gerald Robinson, Jr. leading the charge with 23 points.  Robinson once again played like an All-SEC guard, despite not receiving any post-season conference accolades.

Georgia found themselves in a bit of a hole in the first half after allowing State to go on an 18-8 run that put them up 23-15 with 7:06 remaining before intermission.

However, the Dawgs responded with a 16-6 run of their own, enabling them to take a 31-29 advantage into the break.

The game was knotted up pretty tight to start the second half until senior Dustin Ware, who was held scoreless in the first half, decided to start contributing in a big-time manner.  Ware caught fire from the outside, canning 3 threes and scoring 11 points in less than five minutes, stretching his team’s lead to 49-36 at the 11:53 mark.  The senior guard ended up with 13 points on the night.

Defensively, Georgia was able to once again lock Missy State down, limiting them to under 39% from the floor and just 29% from beyond the arc.  The Dawgs‘ interior defense was particularly strong, holding Arnette Moultrie and Renardo Sidney to a combined 11 points on 4 of 13 shooting from the floor.

MSU senior guard Dee Bost, who wound up with only 10 points, shot a frigid 2 of 9 from beyond the arc (which marks the 4th game this year his team has lost when he has tossed up 8 or more three-point attempts).

Congratulations to Coach Mark Fox and the Georgia basketball team for putting forth an excellent effort in tonight’s game as well as getting themselves into the second round of the SEC tournament, where they will meet the Vanderbilt Commodores.

Vandy swept the Bulldogs this year for the second consecutive season, largely in part due to the performance of junior All-SEC guard John Jenkins.  Jenkins has been somewhat of a Dawg-killer throughout his career, averaging nearly 21 points in games against UGA and enabling Vandy to rack up six-straight wins over Georgia.

If Coach Mark Fox’s team wants to keep the momentum rolling into the weekend then they must find a way to contain the Vandy guard.

Dawgs drop second-straight game, fall to Vandy at home 61-52

The only thing more depressing than the weather outside today was Georgia’s second-half offense against the Vanderbilt Commodores today in Athens.

The Bulldogs(12-14; 3-9) played very solid defense in the first half, holding Vanderbilt to under 29% from the floor and forcing 6 steals.  Georgia took a 29-28 lead into the break despite not having Kentavious-Caldwell Pope’s services for nearly 16 minutes due to early foul trouble.

UGA Student Section
Where were all the UGA students?

The problem, however, was that the Dawgs only held a one-point advantage over the Commodores at the intermission.  Even though Vandy was ice-cold in the first half, Georgia was unable to add to their lead and give themselves a bit of a cushion heading into the second half.

KCP returned to action after the break though, capping off a 7-0 UGA run with a jumper that put the Dawgs up 40-35 with 13:38 left in the game.

Then John Jenkins happened.

The junior guard scored 8 points over the next 5 minutes, spearheading a 15-0 Vanderbilt run.  On a personal side note, I’ve never witnessed a 15-0 run live and let me tell you it is not fun to observe when the team you are cheering for has the “0”.

Georgia played their part during this Commodore run, missing 8 consecutive shots and turning the ball over twice.  After the smoke cleared, Vandy was up 50-40 with under 8 minutes remaining.  The Dawgs’ Gerald Robinson finally broke the UGA drought by scoring consecutive baskets to bring Georgia within 6 points.

Then John Jenkins happened again.

This time the Vandy guard knocked down back-to-back three-pointers to put his team up 56-44, crushing any hopes of a possible Georgia comeback.

Jenkins finished the game with 28 points on 6 of 8 shooting from beyond the arc, and his Commodore team walked out of Stegeman with the 61-52 victory.

Other than Gerald Robinson, who led all Bulldog scorers with 19 points, no other Georgia players cracked double-digits.  KCP and Dustin Ware finished with 6 and 7 points, respectively, and they combined to make just 5 of their 23 shots from the floor.

The Dawgs put on one of the worst three-point shooting displays today that I can remember in some time, hitting only 3 of 23 attempts, or 13%.  Georgia’s scored just 23 points after the intermission, largely in part due to a 1 for 17 shooting performance from beyond the arc.

At this point, it’s beginning to look as though the only post-season Georgia can expect to look forward to is the off-season.

The Dawgs followed up their most successful week of the season (which seems like ages ago now) – wins over Arkansas and Mississippi State – with consecutive SEC losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

Next week appears as though it could produce similar results as this one – Georgia hits the road Wednesday to play LSU (who beat SC in Columbia yesterday) before returning home Saturday to host the #12 Florida Gators.

Kudos to any fans out there that made the trip to Stegeman for the game today.  I was extremely disappointed in the turnout from the UGA student section, which appeared to be only about 15% full.

The highlight of the day for me was the El Sandwich Cubano I had from Cali & Tito’s prior to the game.

Georgia looks to rebound against Vanderbilt Sunday at 1:00PM

The Georgia Bulldogs (12-13; 3-8) still have a shot at getting into this year’s NIT Tournament, but after Wednesday night’s loss to South Carolina they certainly have their work cut out for them.

For Georgia to have a realistic chance of getting selected by the NIT committee, they would be best served by bolstering their overall record to .500 before season’s end.  In other words, the Dawgs probably need to win 3 of the 5 remaining games.  One of those games is on the road in Lexington against Kentucky, meaning that Georgia should set its sights on winning 3 of the other games against Vanderbilt, Florida, South Carolina or at LSU.

If Coach Mark Fox’s team could take 3 more games they would finish somewhere just below the midsection of the SEC standings, giving them a potentially very winnable first-round conference tournament match-up.

The point I’m trying to make is that the Dawgs still have goals to shoot for this season, and accomplishing them starts with beating Vanderbilt (18-8; 7-4) on Sunday.

Georgia played the Commodores tough in Nashville back in January, hanging around until the very end when Vandy was able to pull away and secure a 77-66 home victory.

Vanderbilt’s starting five features three players – John Jenkins, Jeffrey Taylor and Festus Ezeli – who are all slated to be drafted to the NBA in 2012 according to nbadraft.net.  Taylor and Jenkins are averaging 18.6 ppg and 18.3 ppg respectively, which ranks them first and second in the conference in that category in SEC games this season.  Both of these players are deadly from beyond the arc, where Taylor is connecting on 60% of his shots to Jenkins’ 46.1%.

Ezeli, who was starting to work himself back into the lineup the last time Georgia faced Vandy, has stepped up his game over the past five outings, netting 14.4 ppg during that stretch.  He is a tough match-up for a Bulldog team that lacks anyone with his size, strength or athleticism.  I expect to see more of the same match-up zone on Sunday that UGA utilized against Mississippi State in an attempt to provide help to the undersized bigs with Ezeli.

In the first game between these teams in Nashville, Coach Fox kept the game played at a halfcourt tempo which seemed to work fairly well for the Dawgs.  However, prior to the debacle in Columbia last Wednesday, Georgia had been enjoying a lot of offensive success in their wins over both Arkansas and Mississippi State when they pushed the pace of the game with their speedy backcourt.  I am definitely interested how exactly Fox plans on attacking this Commodore defense on Sunday.

With Vanderbilt’s 18-8 record (7-4 SEC) and RPI rating of 26, they are probably locked into this year’s NCAA Tournament.  However, the ‘Dores have a brutal stretch of games to round out their conference schedule – at #1 Kentucky, #12 Florida at home and then at Tennessee.  If Vandy were to slip up and drop a game to either Georgia or South Carolina, they could run the risk of finishing 8-8 in the conference and needing an SEC Tournament win to feel safe about their postseason security.  I anticipate that Coach Kevin Stallings’ team will arrive in Athens on Sunday hungry to notch their fourth conference road victory of the year.

The Dawgs didn’t respond to well to success last week against Carolina.  I wonder how well they will handle a little adversity following a loss?