Vanderbilt has already beaten Georgia twice this season, but if the Bulldogs win tonight, their victory would overshadow all of the Commodores' regular season work.
Mark Fox's team has a chance to redeem themselves and sink Vanderbilt's season into panic with a win tonight in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. Georgia stumbled through a 5-11 conference record, but the Bulldogs have gone 3-1 over their last four games. Their only loss over that span, which included triumphs over Florida and Mississippi State, was to top-ranked Kentucky.
They capped off that run with last night's win over the SEC's other Bulldogs - a team whose teamwork failed to match their talent. Georgia had the smaller and less athletic team, but left the first day of the tournament with a double-digit victory. They'll face similar disadvantages against Vanderbilt on Friday - although these Commodores are a much more cohesive unit than MSU's motley crew.
Vanderbilt has beaten Georgia twice so far this season - an 11-point home win and a nine-point road victory where neither game was as lopsided as the final score suggests. Vandy ground down their less talented and less experienced opponent in the second half of each game to record a pair of key wins. Psychologically, the 'Dores should have the advantage over a team that they've beaten twice already. However, they won't - because this is the SEC Tournament.
Kevin Stallings has guided this team through 12 SEC Tournaments in his career. Over that span, he's won nine games in all. Vanderbilt has never played a game on Selection Sunday under Stallings's guidance. In simple terms, the conference tournament has been our bald Napoleon's Waterloo - only it occurs every year at the same time.
One win over a .500-ish team wouldn't be enough to shake that monkey from this team's back, but it would be a good start. This team needs to rebuild its confidence after a letdown defeat at Tennessee last week. The Commodores played 40 minutes of listless basketball to stumble into the third seed of this tournament. If they win tonight, they can regain some of the swgger they earned after beating Florida. If they parlay that into a shot at the SEC title, there's no telling how high this team can rise.
So how did this team defeat Georgia this season? Let's look at Vandy's first two victories over the 'Dawgs to get a better idea of how tonight's game may go.
Georgia (15-16, unranked, #110 in the Pomeroy Rankings)
Other Losses: vs. California, at Xavier, at Colorado, vs. Cincinnati, vs. Alabama, at Florida, vs. Ole Miss, vs. Kentucky, at Auburn, at Tennessee, at South Carolina, at LSU, at Kentucky
Keys to the Game:
- Use your big men and zone defense to force Georgia to shoot. Georgia has yet to connect on more than 40 percent of their shots in a game against Vanderbilt this season. This defense has led the team to big wins despite allowing UGA a +28 advantage in shots taken in their two showdowns this season. Vandy has used their zone defense and the presence of Festus Ezeli in the middle to press the action outside of the paint. Georgia obliged them in those games - 46 percent of their total shots were three-pointers. Of those, they made just 22 percent.
Limiting turnovers. Vandy committed 20 turnovers in their second game against UGA, but still cruised to victory when the Bulldogs couldn't turn those opportunities into points. Georgia corrected that mistake in last night's win over Mississippi State, where they converted 14 turnovers into 20 points and used those plays to stem any momentum Rick Stansbury's team hoped to build into a game-changing run.
If Georgia can create a confluence of their second Vanderbilt game and last night's MSU game, they'll be able to strip the Commodores down for easy baskets all game. The Bulldogs averaged an efficient 1.39 points per shot against State in their tournament opener. If they can keep that up, Vandy won't be able to afford to give them extra possessions. They'll have to be extra vigilant with their big men; Ezeli, Lance Goulbourne, and Steve Tchiengang combined for 14 turnovers the last time these two teams met.
Score at the rim. This season (excluding games with UGA), Vanderbilt has scored 36.7 percent of their points via three-pointer. Against the Bulldogs, they needed just 24.3 percent of their points from long range in a pair of wins. Georgia lacks the size to truly deter the Commodores inside, and while Vandy's big men have had some trouble against Mark Fox's defensive schemes, the rest of the team has been able to make their shots in the paint count.
Vandy won't have to rely on their shooting to lift them up in this game, but it will help. The team has logged victories against the Bulldogs despite getting rough performances from at least two of their "big three" in each matchup. If the 'Dores can take advantage of their speed and strength advantages, there should be plenty of good looks inside the arc waiting for them on Friday night.