The Vanderbilt Commodores go after their third consecutive win in SEC play against the Georgia Bulldogs. The Commodores come off of a 60-51 win over the South Carolina Gamecocks in Columbia SC in which they shot well and played perhaps their best defense of the season.
Interestingly, the team's three point shooting has been down in the last two games (18-6 against Auburn and 14-5 against South Carolina), well below the season's average of 24-9. Auburn and South Carolina are among the best teams in the conference in half-court defense, and that might have something to do with the reduced 3-point production, which has been offset by more scoring from inside and more free throws made.
Georgia has been the most surprising team in the conference. They come in ranked 17th nationally, with a 5-1 SEC record, including an 81-67 trouncing of Arkansas on Wednesday. They have defeated Kentucky and Florida each on their home courts, something that no team was expected to do before the season began. The Bulldogs are first in the Eastern Division.
For most of the season Georgia has had only seven or eight scholarship players. Then, two of those, starting center Steve Thomas and reserve guard Tony Cole, were suspended following an assault charge, reducing the number to merely six in the Bulldogs's last three games.
Shooting guard Ezra Williams (18 ppg), forward Jarvis Hayes (17.4 ppg), forward Chris Daniels (13 ppg), and point guard Rashard Wright (7.6 ppg), have been joined in the starting lineup by 6'6" transfer sophomore Jonas Hayes (7.8 ppg), the twin brother of Jarvis.
The only scholarship player coming off the bench is 6'2" freshman guard Mike Dean, who joined the team at the end of the fall semester, having been academically ineligible previously. Dean hadn't been much of a factor until the Arkansas game, in which he scored nine points.
An important recent acquisition is 6'4" freshman Fred Gibson, who is a star end on the football team. Gibson is averaging 6 ppg in the five games in which he has appeared.
Walk-ons Mike Patrick (1.9 ppg) and Ryan Pevey (1.6 ppg) continue to contribute.
How do the Bulldogs continue to win despite this desperate shortage of manpower? The statistics log does not provide many clues. They are only a fair three-point shooting team (average 20-6, compared to Vanderbilt's 24-9). Overall they shoot 44.5%, while Vanderbilt makes 47.4%. They grab 35 rebounds per game, while Vanderbilt gets 29. Turnovers and assists are about even between the two teams. They foul somewhat less than the Commodores, and hit their free throws almost as well (73% to 74.4%). So good defense and intangibles must be the secret of their success. They play smart, are tough, and work well together. And Coach Jim Harrick must be given a lot of credit for the job he has done.
Steve Thomas gave the Commodores a lot of trouble in the first game, won by the Bulldogs 83-69 in Athens GA. He grabbed seven rebounds, made 7 of his 8 shots from the field, and was their second leading scorer with 16 points. Tony Cole had nine points. However, the Dores held Jarvis Hayes to just nine points and Ezra Williams to eleven, and both are likely to do better this time. Also, Jonas Hayes played only 12 minutes and scored only three points in the first game; expect him to make a much bigger contribution.
The biggest factor in the Bulldogs 83-69 win over Vanderbilt on January 5 was their huge margin from the free throw line (36-27 to only 11-7 for Vanderbilt). That isn't likely to happen in Memorial Gym. Rebounding was about even in that first game.
The Commodores will have increased confidence, especially following a conference road win. They have a decent chance to win. IF both teams shoot well, and neither has a terrible rash of turnovers, expect a close game, the sort that may be decided by toughness or just plain luck.