With a team that Felton built single-handledly in two seasons with only seven scholarship players and several walk-ons, the Bulldogs finished 224th in the RPI and struggled to find any bright spots in their play. However, the players and the team have learned and grown from that experience. Sundiata Gaines – a natural shooting guard – was forced to play point, but developed his basketball IQ and leadership skills more than he could have anywhere else. Fellow UGA guard Levi Stukes benefited from the experience as well.
"Levi's been called on to do more than he would have been called to do in any other program," said Coach Felton, "He came into our program without many players, so he's accrued a lot of playing time – a lot of experience." The experience of those two guards alone would make Georgia a much improved team this year. Add in the fact that the Bulldogs return all five of their starters while adding impact freshman, and you have the recipe for a breakthrough season. Just look at their record – the Bulldogs have already won more SEC games this year (with a 3-5 conference record) than they did all of last season.
Toney has improved his shooting greatly this season – from 36% last year to 44% now – helping him keep a starting spot that some thought would be stolen by Mike Mercer. Mercer, a freshman ranked as one of the top 25 recruits in the country last year, averages just as much playing time as Toney (about 24 minutes), but has hit some cold shooting streaks. He is only 22-for-77 from the perimeter (28%), 42% from the field, and 60% from the free throw line. In addition, he is not as ready to take over the point guard position as some expected – he has only 29 assists to his 39 turnovers. While Mercer has started one game for the Bulldogs, it is rather safe to say that Stukes, Gaines, and Toney will be the three most dangerous backcourt players for Dennis Felton. Between the three of them, they account for 32 of Georgia's 73 points per game, while generally being more efficient than Mercer and the other UGA perimeter players. Billy Humphrey is another freshman guard to worry about – especially with his shooting touch. He is the team's fifth leading scorer and second best perimeter shooter. Kevin Brophy, a walk-on who many fans remember from his prominent role last season, has only appeared in 10 games for Georgia this year and does not have a meaningful role on the team.
In the front-court, the key players are Bliss, Newman, Younes Idrissi, Terrance Woodbury, and Rashaad Singleton. Bliss and Newman retained their starting spots from last season despite the fact that they have seen less playing time than Woodbury and Idrissi. Neither are very potent as scoring threats – Georgia's scoring offense is dominated by their guard play. Neither do the two rebound particularly well – Gaines, Humphrey, and Stukes each average more rebounds than the two frontcourt starters. Idrissi is coming off of a career-high 16 points scored off of Alabama, and figures to be a critical presence again today – he has the greatest potential in the Georgia frontcourt to be an impact player on Saturday. Woodbury is listed in the Georgia athletic department's preview as a probable starter. Despite appearing in only 11 games this season, the athletic freshman has fit quite nicely into Felton's system. Averaging 6.5 points and 3.4 rebounds per game this season, Woodbury sacrifices size for athleticism in the front-court in a way vaguely similar to DeMarre Carroll.
Georgia's weaknesses as a team are clear. For one thing, each of their top five scorers and top two rebounders is a pure guard – post play is inconsistent at best. Georgia has allowed 70 points per game this season, 11th in the SEC. They allow their opponents to shoot 44.3% -- also 11th in the SEC. They foul more than any team in the SEC (20.2 per game), have the 10th lowest shooting percentage in the SEC, and have fewer assists per game than 10 SEC teams. On top of the weak defense, shooting, and passing, the Bulldogs have no discernable and significant strengths. They do not rank in the SEC's top 4 in any statistical category tracked by the NCAA. Vanderbilt outmatches UGA statistically in the following categories, among others: scoring margin, FG%, opponents' FG%, 3pt%, opponents' 3pt%, FT%, assists, opponents' assists, turnovers, and assist/turnover ratio.
Additionally, Georgia's history in Memorial is discouraging to Bulldog fans. Not only is Dennis Felton 0-3 in Memorial (including one loss as coach of Western Kentucky), but UGA's combined record in Memorial in their last 27 visits is 7-20. Even when Georgia's team is nationally ranked, their record in Memorial is 1-4.
Felton might blame the location of the benches for part of that problem. He has been an outspoken critic of Memorial's layout, and has caught the ire of referees in the past for standing partially inbounds on the baseline, even when a half-court offense is operating within a few feet of where he is standing. Whether this reaction is sour grapes or an honest gripe, Georgia's head coach seems to be distracted by this perceived injustice.
While Georgia is coming off of their best performance in two years against Alabama, the Commodores must win this contest in order to begin salvaging their season. There is still a margin of error in the standings, but it is becoming microscopic. By failing to win as a significant underdog on the road against two top-15 ranked teams in Florida and Tennessee, the ‘Dores forced themselves to defend their home court as though their lives depended on it. However, despite the desperate situation, this is the Commodores' game to win. If Vanderbilt plays its "A game", the contest will be fully decided at halftime. Georgia simply does not have the talent to stay with the Commodores this year, despite their improvement over last season. In their last two visits to Nashville, Georgia was held to under 40 points in each contest. Vanderbilt is hungry for a win after a 1-4 skid in their last five games, so the smart money picks Vanderbilt to have the edge in the intangibles today.
The keys to the game for Vanderbilt are as follows:
(1) If the Bulldogs are going to score, make them score from the outside. Georgia simply doesn't have a consistant scoring threat in the frontcourt. If Vanderbilt stops players like Gaines, Stukes, and Mercer from having breakout games, this should be another low scoring night for UGA.
(2) Protect the ball. Georgia forces over 17 turnovers per game, including almost 9 steals per game. Turnovers and panic on the Commodores' part compose one of the only factors that could swing the game in Georgia's favor.
(3) Keep the post players out of foul trouble. Given UGA's weak scoring threats in the paint, this should not be a problem. If Julian Terrell is unhindered by foul trouble, he should easily outmatch any UGA post players, and could have one of the best nights of his career.
(4) Fourth – and most importantly – take advantage of UGA's zone defense. Vanderbilt has been preparing for UGA to utilize a lot of zone defense, and Vanderbilt's zone offense has looked much more lethal than their man offense this season. DeMarre Carroll is the key to this equation. Carroll has become the zone buster and most consistent player in SEC contests – don't be surprised if DeMarre Carroll has a career night. If DeMarre forces UGA out of the zone defense, it will be that much easier for Vanderbilt to get points in the paint from other players.
The bottom line is that this should be no contest. Georgia has improved a lot, but the Commodore squad is hungrier than ever, and will come out firing on all cylinders.
Vanderbilt 88, Georgia 72
Vanderbilt MVP: DeMarre Carroll
Georgia MVP: Mike Mercer