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The SEC's Worst Losses: Georgia

Last week's SEC's Worst Losses feature proved to be partially prescient, as South Carolina's inside-out duo of Ellington and Muldrow ended up sinking the Commodores. This week won't get any easier, as red-hot Georgia and sort of lukewarm Tennessee gear up for big games in the Volunteer State. With one conference loss already, Vanderbilt has little room for error against a pair of teams loaded with talent - but suffering from other questions about their play.

Georgia comes to Nashville Wednesday as this week's edition of the SEC's second best team (previous honors went to Florida, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt) and riding the momentum of their biggest win of the season - a 77-70 victory against #11 Kentucky. They'll get the chance to prove their mettle against the Commodores in a showdown that will have major ramifications in the SEC East. Mark Fox's team has a pair of bonafide standouts in Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie fueling the offense, and the addition of transfer Gerald Robinson - a Nashville native who earned his stripes at Tennessee State before moving to Athens - has made them a dangerous opponent.

The Bulldogs have tallied 12 wins behind an efficient defense that has been successful in keeping opponents from scoring inside the arc. Kentucky shot just 38% against them in last week's upset, and that low shooting percentage has been par for the course for Georgia's opponents. However, they'll be facing a team with similar strengths in Nashville Wednesday, as the Commodores are equally strong in scoring defense, shot blocking, and defensive rebounding. Since the two teams are evenly matched on the court, let's look at the blueprint Temple laid out to see how Kevin Stallings can exploit Georgia's weaknesses.

Georgia (12-2, AP #24, Coaches' #29) 
Worst Loss: vs. Temple (11-3, KenPom #34CBS RPI #90), 58-65
Other Losses: vs. #15 Notre Dame

Mark Fox's Georgia squad (KenPom #70CBS RPI #47) started their rise last season with several big name upsets and have carried that momentum into 2010-2011, posting a 12-2 record and a national ranking. The Bulldogs are talented and efficient, having only lost to a pair of solid teams in Temple and Notre Dame. However, the team was considered a paper tiger until last week's signature win over Kentucky; a victory that shot them into the national consciousness and made them an even more legitimate threat for the Commodores.

A mostly undersized Temple team was able to break down Georgia's defense in a late November victory at the Old Spice Classic. The Owls opened up a second half lead that Fox's team couldn't break down en route to a 65-58 win in a slow paced game. The Bulldogs fought off exhaustion from a double overtime loss against Notre Dame the previous night to play tough in the loser's bracket, but didn't have enough gas left in the tank to pull off the early season upset.

Key to Destruction: A balanced, grinding attack. Temple wore down Georgia after they were coming off an emotional low and were physically drained. Vanderbilt will be getting the Bulldogs at an emotional high (after their win over Kentucky) and fresh off three days rest. Still, the capacity for a letdown is there, and the combination of home court advantage and a relentless, abrasive attack can chip away at a vulnerable team like the 'Dawgs.

Temple disrupted Georgia's rhythm, limited Trey Thompkins, and took advantage of their strengths to bully their way to the early season victory. Whenever the Bulldogs put together a run, the Owls were there to cut their momentum and protect their lead, never panicking and using the full shot clock on their possessions to create the best possible scoring opportunities. This patience worked. Temple had four straight possessions in which they ran the shot clock down to 10 seconds or less after UGA cut their lead to three late in the game. They scored on three of these drives; good for seven points and enough to effectively close the door on the Bulldogs.

Keys to the Game:

  • Stay patient. Stay hungry. The Bulldogs broke down late in the game and late in the shot clock against Temple, allowing the Owls to put together a string of clutch points that secured the victory. Some of UGA's struggles can be attributed to their double-OT loss to Notre Dame the night before, but let's not forget that this is a team that hasn't handled consistency well in the past. The Commodores can grind out possessions effectively thanks to a wide array of scorers, and if Kevin Stallings can put the pressure on Georgia late in the game in a hostile Memorial Gym it's going to make things extremely difficult for the streaky Bulldogs.
  • Throw a variety of different looks at Trey Thompkins. Thompkins is one of the SEC's best big men, but Temple severely limited his impact despite having a less talented frontcourt. 6'11" Michael Eric and a pair of 6'6" forwards were able to frustrate the much stronger Thompkins all night, limiting his scoring and keeping him off the glass with either their length or lateral quickness. These guys were able to pester Georgia's top scorer and biggest inside presence all night, and the Bulldogs' offense suffered significantly as a result. Vanderbilt, with a litany of fast, pesky forwards, can throw the kitchen sink at Thompkins. They might just have to - the junior big man is averaging over 19 points per game in UGA victories.
  • Force them to rely on their bench. Georgia's starting five is one of the strongest in the SEC, but they aren't a deep team by any means. In their biggest win of the season over Kentucky, their bench scored just 8 points while their starters averaged 33 minutes in that game. The Owls, working against a worn-down team in November, forced the Bulldogs to pull seven different players off the bench, and this unit combined to shoot just 2-11 and score six points. Georgia's second unit doesn't have much to offer behind senior forward Chris Barnes, and this creates a major mismatch for the deep Commodores, even if Andre Walker can't play. 

Temple won by being deliberate, but given the disparity of the two benches don't be surprised if Vanderbilt pushes the tempo to force Mark Fox to go to his reserves. If Georgia's starters pull off another 33+ minute night, then the Commodores could be in trouble. If Georgia has to rely on guys like Donte Williams and Sherrard Brantley, then Vandy will have a much clearer path to victory. In any case, it will be a meeting between two of the most talented squads these schools have produced in a decade, and a NCAA resume building win for the victor.