Scouting Report: Georgia

It's more than a little ironic that Vanderbilt men's basketball has carved out an identity as an offense-first program, because the pathway to increased relevance in the college basketball world runs through the defensive end of the floor. The more the Commodores defend, the more they can succeed.


It's all so rich, isn't it? Even in the 1993 Sweet 16 season under Eddie Fogler, Vanderbilt came across as a team with shotmakers, a team that needed to play pretty basketball and tickle the twine in order to flourish. Billy McCaffrey and Company needed to play a precise brand of ball, execute in half-court sets, and make a game clean if they wanted to prevail. Temple punched Vanderbilt in the mouth in the West Regional semifinals in Seattle, and because the Owls were able to take away Vandy's rhythm, they took away the Dores' shot at a Final Four that season. Yes, even 19 years ago (has it been that long?), Vanderbilt's fortunes rested on its ability to play attractive basketball and prevent opponents from mucking things up. This motif continued into the Kevin Stallings era, and since VU has been roughed up in its recent NCAA Tournament appearances, the Dores have generally failed to move through brackets, the 2007 season being the exception that proves the rule.

Now, however, Vanderbilt basketball might be acquiring some steel beneath the velvet, some Margaret Thatcher iron beneath the polished British accent. Yes, Vanderbilt is showing some signs that it could become the newest flag-carrier for SEC defense. No, the Commodores have not "arrived" or anything like that. This is a team whose 2012 character is in the process of being formed. However, through two SEC games, the news is very encouraging for VU. In back-to-back basketball battles, the Dores have thrown down a first-rate defensive performance, thrusting a couple of weak sisters into straitjackets and not allowing them to escape. Stallings' students have not won by being stylish; they've won with grit and elbow grease. This trend has to continue and solidify into a defining aspect of the 2012 Commodores if the Vandy program wants to take the proverbial next step. This team needs to be able to win with defense and more defense on those nights when shots don't fall and John Jenkins gets taken away by an opponent. The VU crew now encounters yet another game in which it will be able to put the clamps on an SEC foe.

The defense can't rest – not this season; not for the next two and a half months.

GEORGIA AT-A-GLANCE

Georgia's trajectory in the SEC is what yoga practitioners would call "Downward Dawg." Coach Mark Fox called one of the worst timeouts in recent college basketball memory in the SEC Tournament Quarterfinals against Alabama last March. Georgia failed to punch its ticket to the NCAA Tournament and has not been able to generate meaningful momentum since then. UGA is 9-7 entering this Saturday's game in Nashville. The Bulldogs have lost to lowly Georgia Tech and a so-so Colorado squad. They've been thumped in their first two SEC games against Alabama and Florida, failing to score 60 points in either contest. Against Florida, Georgia posted 48 points, and that was WITH the aid of 14 offensive rebounds. Yes, this is a team Vanderbilt can shut down. The Commodores can keep this club under 55 points; moreover, VU can do so and not think that it has achieved something spectacular or overly newsworthy.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Donte Williams –
Sophomore, 6-9, 210 2011-12: 7.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.4 blocks per game

If Williams was a more imposing low-post player, Fox would give him more minutes. Yet, this Williams (one of two in UGA's starting five) has averaged just 21 minutes in the Bulldogs' pair of SEC losses this season. This tells you that Fox is groping for answers and searching for the right lineup on the floor. As was the case with South Carolina, this is a big "uh-oh" for the Dawgs. Williams's lack of presence on the low block says so much about Georgia's on-court woes this season.

Forward– Nemanja Djurisic – Freshman, 6-8, 220; 2011-12: 6.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg

This is a player who can bust loose for Georgia, and will accordingly need to be held in check by Vanderbilt. Djurisic didn't get much court time in the Bulldogs' first several games of the season, but he's collected at least 28 minutes in three of Georgia's last four games. Accordingly, the freshman from Montenegro has scored in double figures in those same three games. Djurisic was the only Georgia player to score more than eight points this past Tuesday in the 70-48 loss at Florida. He is a confident player with a powerful body that is only going to get stronger in the coming years. Stallings and the rest of the VU staff will want to devote some of their attention to Djurisic at the defensive end of the floor.

Guard– Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – Freshman, 6-4, 190; 2011-12: 14.2 ppg, 5 rpg

Caldwell-Pope leads Georgia in scoring this season, but if you look a little closer, he's only a 33-percent three-point shooter who averages just three foul shots per game. A player who doesn't hit from long distance and doesn't get to the foul line is not a pure shooter, and he's not a particularly powerful ballhandler, either. Caldwell-Pope succeeds because he has a nose for the ball; he works hard and puts his thin 190-pound frame into the middle of the paint. His leaping ability enables him to compete with low-post players for loose balls, and that's what enables him to put the ball in the bucket. He's not the kind of defensive assignment which will keep Vanderbilt up late at night, but he is an "energy guy" whom the Dores will need to keep pace with. If Vanderbilt plays casually at either end of the floor, Caldwell-Pope will make his presence felt.

Guard – Gerald Robinson – Senior, 6-1, 180; 2011-12: 13.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.4 apg

Robinson is a more well-rounded player than Caldwell-Pope. He shoots better, gets to the foul line more often, and displays better acumen as a passer and a facilitator of Fox's halfcourt offense. This is the player Vanderbilt needs to keep out of the paint; if VU stops Robinson's dribble penetration, it will choke off passing lanes and restrict the Bulldogs' offensive flow and continuity.

Guard – Vincent Williams – Junior, 6-0, 160; 2011-12: 4.7 ppg, 1.4 rpg,

Vincent Williams is – like Donte Williams – one of the weaker members of the Dawgs' starting five. His build is too slight and his lack of physical stature works against him as well. Vincent Williams, given his physique, needs to own an eye-popping basketball toolbox in order to be an impact player, but his skill set just isn't what Fox or the rest of the Dawgs would like it to be. If Vanderbilt focuses on Caldwell-Pope, Robinson and Djurisic (as it should), will the two Williamses be able to make the Commodores pay? That will be a key question to emerge in this Saturday's contest.

Bench

Fox needs his bench to produce in copious quantities, especially at the offensive end of the floor, but the triumvirate of Dustin Ware, John Florveus, and Connor Nolte provided just 8 points and 6 rebounds (five of them from Florveus) in 56 minutes of action on Tuesday against Florida. Georgia's bench has to ripen into something far more prolific for this team to have a sniff at an NIT berth – and a half-decent season – in 2012.

Keys to the Game

1) Take away Djurisic and Robinson.
Charles Barkley – an SEC alum, after all, given his playing days at Auburn in the 1980s – famously said on a TNT broadcast that "You have to make the bad guys beat you." That statement was inelegant. It was and is politically incorrect in the extreme. It is the epitome of analytical harshness. And it's absolutely correct. Vanderbilt needs to take away Djurisic and Robinson, Georgia's two best offensive players, thereby forcing a highly shaky supporting cast to fill the void. If the Bulldogs can't become an effective eight-man team with legitimate scoring options at every spot on the floor, Vandy will deliver another authoritative defensive performance.

2) Energy, energy, energy. The Commodores can't feel they have it made, especially because – well – they don't have it made. Moreover, though, VU needs to continue to cultivate a mindset which will generate relentless defensive performances each and every gameday or gamenight. The casual fan will say, "Ah, it's Georgia. Vandy has this game in the bag." That's the attitude which has led to embarrassing losses in the past; what's even more salient in all this is that Vanderbilt has to get past that frame of mind. The Dores need to ignore the quality of their opponent and impose their best defense on each and every foe, regardless of the outside circumstances.

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