Georgia is 12-10 and 6-4 SEC coming off home wins over LSU and Texas A&M. They have just one road conference win but it was a good one, opening the schedule with an overtime success at Missouri. These Dogs also have four wins over 100-RPI opponents. Though talking in NCAA terms is a serious stretch, this team can shoot for a winning record and some sort of post-season play.
It will be a familiar lineup in large part, with most of the Georgians from last years' game still around. Big guard Charles Mann sets this season scoring pace at 13.5 while netting nearly three assists each night. Kenny Gaines leads starters in making treys, but off the bench 6-8 Nemanja Djurisic is even more proficient from the arc as an offensive miss-match man. He hurt an ankle the last game so Wednesday's status is uncertain.
But he doesn't usually start anyway as Georgia lately goes with Donte Williams, Marcus Thornton, and Brandon Morris in a three-forward lineup. The latter two have turned into double-double Dogs the last few games while Williams blocks shots and rebounds misses. And boardwork is where this team excels as a whole.
"They're a big, physical team," Ray said. "And they do a tremendous job running their sets. But I'm really concerned what happens once the ball gets up on the rim."
Three weeks ago the host Bulldogs (13-10, 3-7) were on a little bit of a roll after defeating Auburn for a third home-SEC win. Since then though five losses have taken a toll, including two homecourt setbacks. Those weren't really surprises since the winning teams were #3 Florida and #18 Kentucky. Nor were the margins, nine and ten points, discouraging in those cases. "We've played a couple of hard teams," said Borchert. "We've got to get back on track and play like Mississippi State."
Ray for his part walks a fine line by avoiding a ‘moral victory' attitude after playing top-twenty teams tight yet still letting the team feel better about themselves. "We made our first step to being successful with what we did Saturday. Now that gives you some leeway going into Georgia and possibly winning that game."
The possibility is indeed present, though a couple of weeks ago odds would have seemed stronger. It isn't just that the Bulldogs have failed beat comparable clubs like Texas A&M and Vanderbilt on the road. Scoring has become a serious struggle. The highest output in this skid was 63 points at Ole Miss; in the four other losses State has averaged 53 points. Team shooting has been a bit over 40%.
That accuracy isn't really surprising. This was never going to be a bunch of dead-eye Dogs in the first place, and the 36% three-pointing in the five losses is actually a little better than most would figure. Ray made clear early on he wasn't relying on long-range scoring to carry the club anyway and that is all the more true now that SEC foes regularly throw up zone defenses. By packing the lane on center Gavin Ware and closing alleys on guard Craig Sword, the best two offensive options are accounted for.
Even Kentucky, which normally disdains zones, went to a 2-3 look in both halves at times. Georgia coach Mark Fox has stated he is no fan of zoning either, but Ray is rightly skeptical about facing only man-defense tomorrow. "We'll wait and see if that actually happens," he said.
Certainly Ware (10.6ppg) has been shackled of late. Since a 22-point night at home against A&M, he has scored a total of 47 points in six games. He's only gotten off 27 total shots in the same stretch, though of course a goodly number of other attempts were erased on foul calls. And getting the big Dog to the free throw line is almost option-A for this offense now.
Sword has found going between lane and arc pretty tough too. The moment he has the ball inside that stripe he is ambushed by one defender with another in reserve. Sword is able to get off more shots than Ware, it's just that increasingly he must force many attempts. In the same six-game stretch he is 20-of-59 and has even begun tossing up trey-tries which is obviously not his strength.
One option for beating the zone has been Borchert's outside shooting, and he's made a trey or three in the last five games. Closer in forward Rocquez Johnson has struggled too in seeking those higher-percentage shots that were the best part of his game. When State was 3-2 SEC the junior was 22-of-43 from the floor; in the five games since he is 11-of-41 as defenses force him to receive the ball farther from the rim than before.
Another factor for State has been inconsistent availability of some players, especially point guard IJ Ready. Fever sidelined him Saturday, the third SEC game to miss. Not only does this take away the starting point guard and one jump-shooting option, but it's kept the freshman from getting into any real rhythm so far. "This might be the biggest trial since I've been playing basketball," Ready said Monday, adding he watched the game in the training room. "I was proud of my team. I felt like I could have done something to prevent it."
Ready is back for this game. And guard Jacoby Davis is getting worked-in for more minutes. Time should sharpen his shooting eye, and Ray pointed out that the second-year freshman did some underappreciated defensive work against Kentucky's touted backcourt at both point and off-guard. "He's done a fantastic job of filling in when we needed him." Meanwhile veteran guard Trivante Bloodman has steadied the offense down as Ready's alternate. And if guard Fred Thomas has almost vanished as an offensive threat lately, his defense has blossomed accordingly with some tough rebound work as well.
The fact remains that barring one of those ‘hot' shooting nights for a few players, these Bulldogs rely on defense first and in-turn transition offense to make plays. Otherwise Ray wants to work the shot clock and seek some opening for Ware and Sword to create a good shot. This is the hardest way to play the game of course, with no margin for less-than-great effort games like at Texas A&M last week.
And State players understand. "We've had much closer games this year and those are our mistakes," Bloodman said. "These loses we've had, we can come back from it."
"We just have to come out and match everybody's intensity, or have better intensity," said Ready. "If we play every game like we did Kentucky I think we have a chance to win more games."