Georgia, Vandy battle to avoid SEC East cellar

After an off-season of off-court turmoil, these may not be the Georgia Bulldogs of years past... but Dennis Felton's scrappy team has nonetheless pulled off some impressive victories and can't be overlooked. Vanderbilt (14-5, 3-5 SEC) meets the Bulldogs (11-9, 3-6) Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Memorial Gym (Jefferson-Pilot TV, 650 WSM-AM); both teams are looking to avoid the SEC East cellar. VeeMan takes a look at the Georgia roster and makes a prediction.

Although Vanderbilt played well Saturday in Gainesville, the team was once again unable to produce an SEC road victory. The Commodores fell to the Florida Gators, 81-71, after keeping it close most of the way. Vanderbilt dropped in eight more field goals than Florida, 26-18; but poor free throw shooting (11-of-20) was Vanderbilt's downfall, as it was in the road loss to Arkansas. By sinking a whopping 35 of their 39 free throws, the Gators had a tremendous advantage in that department. Matt Freije (18 points), Mario Moore (16), and David Przybyszewski (11) scored in double digits.

The Georgia Bulldogs enter Wednesday night's game vs. Vanderbilt with an 11-9 overall record, and a 3-5 mark in conference play. They have had a wildly up-and-down season, beating Kentucky 65-57 in Lexington and Georgia Tech at home 83-80, and nearly upsetting Gonzaga on the road. On the other hand, they were crushed on their home court by Winthrop (80-60) and South Carolina (84-63) and were routed by Tennessee (89-65) in Knoxville. The Dawgs have home conference victories over Arkansas (71-50) and Mississippi (64-51), and lost at home to Alabama (45-42) and on the road to Mississippi State (71-58), LSU (63-59) and Auburn (57-54).

The Bulldogs have only seven scholarship players after the dismissal of 6-7 Corey Gibbs, considered their most promising freshman. The starting lineup is mainly an experienced one with four formidable seniors (6-7 Chris Daniels, 6-7 Damien Wilkins, 6-8 Jonas Hayes, and 6-3 Rashad Wright), but the other three players on scholarship (6-1 Levi Stukes, 6-8 Steve Newman, 6-6 Marcus Sikes) are freshmen. Two other freshmen, walk-ons Buzz Wehunt (6-4) and Joey Waldrop (7-0, 350 lbs.) also see action.

Wright (14 ppg, photo right by Bill Feig, Associated Press) is shooting 38% from three-point range, but his playmaking and ballhandling have suffered somewhat as he has concentrated more on scoring. Wilkins, the second-leading scorer at 13.5 ppg, handles the ball a lot (second in assists with 2.7 per game, but makes nearly as many turnovers). Daniels (10.2 ppg) is the top defensive player and doubtless will guard Matt Freije when the Dogs play man-to-man. Hayes (12.3 ppg) and Daniels get virtually all their points on the inside. Daniels leads the rebounders with 9.3 per game, assisted by Wilkins (6.1) and Hayes (5.2).

The fifth starter is Stukes, who is an outside threat, hitting 35% of his three pointers, while scoring 8.3 ppg. Newman is strong and active, averaging 3.5 ppg and 2.2 rebounds. Sikes (2.3 ppg) usually plays the fewest minutes of the three freshmen, actually less than walk-on Wehunt (3.5 ppg). The ponderous Waldrop doesn't play much.

Under former Western Kentucky coach Dennis Felton (right, photo by John Bazemore, AP), Georgia is an inside-oriented team, averaging only about five made 3-pointers per game. Overall, the Bulldogs are not one of the better shooting teams in the conference, but Hayes is the only starter who is a bit shaky from the free throw line at 61%. On defense, they have been quite stingy since their shaky opening conference games with Tennessee and South Carolina. Considering their lack of height, they rebound very well, but their assist/turnover ratio is not as good as it was last year.

This is likely to be a low-scoring game if the Bulldogs have their way. With a short bench, Georgia will try to shorten the game as much as possible, hoping to stay in contention to the end. Keep in mind that Georgia's four seniors have defeated Kentucky at Rupp Arena twice in the last four years... a feat that Vanderbilt has never accomplished even once since the building opened.

Vanderbilt has the home court advantage and much more depth and height. This is a must-win game for the Commodores and one in which they should be triumphant. Expect them to beat their scrappy opponents by 6 to 12 points.

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