For Georgia, Wednesday's game against the Commodores might just end up dictating where they'll be playing in March.
The Bulldogs have forged a rocky path since losing to Vanderbilt in Nashville, going a predictable 5-4 and dulling the buzz from their hot start to the season. Georgia has been beating the teams they've been favored against (Mississippi, Arkansas, Auburn) while losing to Top 50 squads (Xavier, Florida, Kentucky), putting them on the edge of the NCAA Tournament bubble. Both ESPN and Sports Illustrated currently count them as a 10 seed, and with four more tough SEC games on the schedule the 'Dawgs could find themselves on the outside looking in without another marquee win.
Georgia has a very solid best win (vs. Kentucky) but their marquee wins after that have come against teams like UAB, Colorado, and Mississippi. While Mark Fox's team has done a great job at avoiding costly upsets (16-0 against teams ranked outside of the KenPom Top 50), they still need more big wins to land on the happy side of the bubble. Vanderbilt presents their first and possibly best chance for a big win over the team's final half of SEC play. Georgia's three other meaningful games - against Tennessee, Florida, and Alabama - will all come on the road.
As a result, the Bulldogs will be treating this game like a postseason affair, and bringing a level of intensity that the Commodores will have to match if they want to get out of Athens with a quality win. Vanderbilt could be primed for a letdown after a pair of intense wins over a 44 hour span. However, if they don't treat Georgia as a desperate - and dangerous - opponent, then Wednesday night could be a long one for Vandy fans.
That said, let's see what we can learn from another one of Georgia's tough losses this season.
Georgia (17-7 (6-4), Unranked)
Like when we first examined them, the Bulldogs still don't have an egregious loss on their resume. Georgia (KenPom #58, CBS RPI #42) has been solid but unspectacular all season, beating lower ranked opponents and losing to higher regarded squads with the exception of a January upset of Kentucky. A home loss to Tennessee, sealed when Brian Williams's rotund body tipped in an airballed three while falling to the court, ranks as possibly Georgia's toughest defeat of the season. Of their three home losses this season, two have come down to the final play of regulation, with one ending in double overtime.
Key to Destruction: Crashing the offensive boards. Tennessee's 12 offensive rebounds afforded them nine extra field goal attempts on the night, making up for a lack of productivity at the free throw line. While the Volunteers weren't efficient against Georgia (59 points on 56 shots), they made up for this deficiency through volume. UT did a great job of shutting down the Bulldogs' key rebounders, as Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie combined for just seven rebounds - less than half their combined season average.
Vanderbilt's ability to perform similarly will depend on Lance Goulbourne's health, but the Commodores will have to do better than the two teams' last meeting, where UGA torched the 'Dores for 17 offensive rebounds despite strong showings from Goulbourne and Festus Ezeli.
Keys to the Game:
- Force the action on Jeremy Price and Dustin Ware. Georgia has a formidable triumvirate of All-SEC caliber players in Thompkins, Leslie, and Gerald Robinson. However, behind these three players, the Bulldogs' talent level drops off. Ware and Price are solid role players, but in losses to Tennessee and Vanderbilt they've been atrocious. The pair has combined for just 11 points on 4-23 shooting against the two teams. If the Commodores can put the pressure on this duo to produce by regulating the amount of good looks UGA's big three gets, they'll take the Bulldogs out of their comfort zone.
- Limit Trey Thompkins in the paint. Georgia is just 2-6 in games where Thompkins scores fewer than 15 points. His counterpart Travis Leslie's scoring doesn't have the same impact - the 'Dawgs are 4-1 in games where he scores less than 10 points and 2-3 in games where he tallies 20 or more. Conventional wisdom suggests that the Commodores should focus on stopping the less efficient but more potent Thompkins in the frontcourt instead of the uber-athletic Leslie on the wing. Oddly, Thompkins's rebounding doesn't have as significant an impact in the W/L records- the Bulldogs are just 1-4 in games where he pulls down double-digit boards.
- Move the ball without turning it over. Pretty basic, I know - but Vanderbilt's first game against Georgia showed a disturbing trend; Vanderbilt's penchant for posting more turnovers than assists in a game. Vanderbilt had just eight assists back in January's matchup, but that team was still adjusting to Andre Walker's absence and didn't have the flow (or confidence in their bench) that the team currently has. Still, the Commodores have posted just a +3 figure for assists:turnovers over their last three games total, and the team had a disturbing 8:15 mark when these two teams last met. If they post a similar number in Athens tomorrow night, they'll end up giving Georgia the marquee win the Bulldogs need.