Dawgs Need Bench at Vandy

ATHENS – It wasn't exactly a surprise that Chris Barnes turned in his best performance of the season last Saturday.

He had impressed enough during practice that Mark Fox figured Barnes had earned his shot.

The junior forward had been averaging just three points a game and hadn't earned more than 11 minutes of playing time in a month, but there was something about his intensity in the days leading up to Georgia's win over Alabama than caught the attention of his coach.

"We need somebody to be tough and do the dirty work on the team," Barnes said. "I brought that mentality during practice last week, and it carried over into the game."

Barnes finished with a season-high 10 points and added five rebounds while helping to spark a late rally to topple the Crimson Tide. It was a big performance from a player who hadn't found his niche all season.

A week earlier, it was Jeremy Price, Barnes' fellow junior forward, who provided a similar spark. Price had hit double digits in scoring just once since early December, but in a win over South Carolina he was dominant, finishing with 16 points and seven rebounds in a season-high 33 minutes of action.

Guard Vincent Williams is averaging barely more than a point a game this season, but in a win over Vanderbilt earlier this month, he chipped in with seven points off the bench, giving Georgia's beleaguered backcourt a respite. Guard Ebuka Anyaorah turned in a similar performance in a win over Tennessee last month, adding seven points and four assists in 15 minutes of action.

The bench for Georgia has talent, and the occasional impressive outings have given Fox plenty of cause for hope. But consistency – that's been the problem.

"We're not as consistent as we need to be, and we're not as mature as I'd like us to be at this point – and not just those guys," Fox said. "As a group, we have a ways to go in being consistent in how we function."

The Bulldogs' bench has been an occasional savior, but more often an afterthought.

Meanwhile, starters Trey Thompkins, Travis Leslie, Dustin Ware and Ricky McPhee are all average well over 30 minutes per game in SEC play, putting plenty of wear and tear on their bodies as the season winds to a close.

So while consistency has eluded the Bulldogs' bench all year, the time has come for a few of those backups to take a step forward.

"No five guys can win a game," said Thompkins, who has played at least 30 minutes in 12 of his past 13 games. "It takes a team effort across the board, and we understand that our bench is a key component of what we do. We expect our bench to come into the game ready to play, and we won't lose a beat."

That will be particularly relevant this week, as the Bulldogs travel to Vanderbilt tonight to take on the No. 16 Commodores before returning home Saturday to host Florida. The Thursday-Saturday combination is the first of the season for Georgia, which means the team's energy – and more importantly, it's depth – will be tested.

"We have to come out, play defense, rebound, try to bring anything to the team that will give us a spark off the bench," Barnes said.

The effort isn't limited to game days, however. Thompkins said Georgia's reserves have shown promise on the practice court, and that has provided a boost to the starters that was rarely seen during practices a year ago.

"It's great because every day we're having a good challenge in practice and a guy who's not going to take it lightly on you," Thompkins said. "We go at each other's heads every day, and it makes us so much better."

The key now, Fox said, is seeing that performance translate onto the court – starting with tonight's contest against Vandy.

Barnes will get a shot to follow up on his strong outing last weekend. Price could see more minutes, too. The guard play has continued to be inconsistent off the bench, but Fox said he's hopeful Williams and Anyaorah can chip in.

"Our bench play, we need some production from that group," Fox said. "I think we're close, but it's still an area we have to work on."

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