After losing their conference opener at Auburn, the Commodores needed to bounce back against their rival to avoid falling to 0-2 in SEC play for the first time since the 2001-2002 season.
On Saturday afternoon, the ‘Dores try to push their conference record to 2-1 and win their second straight as they travel to Athens to take on a much-improved Georgia Bulldog squad.
Led by Coach Dennis Felton, the Bulldogs are coming off of their first win in five games, an 80-56 thrashing of South Carolina. That win came on the heels of four straight double-digit losses to Georgia Tech, Clemson, Wisconsin, and Florida. While Georgia has been statistically impressive, ranking in the top three in the SEC in scoring offense, field goal percentage, and three-point percentage, their only big win to date is a victory over a struggling Gonzaga team.
For the most part, Georgia's success has mirrored that of its outstanding backcourt trio consisting of Mike Mercer, Levi Stukes, and Sundiata Gaines. The trio struggled during the Bulldogs' four game losing streak, as their opponents never allowed the three to get on the same page. When Mercer, Stukes, and Gaines play well in the same game, as they did in the win over Gonzaga (19, 25, and 21 points, respectively), Georgia is hard to beat.
Mercer, a 6-4 sophomore, was the most widely heralded recruit of the three. His 15.6 points per game lead the team and are indicative of his mature offensive game. A point guard in high school, Mercer has a quick first step and a devastating ability to finish around the rim. Though he's struggled from beyond the arc (28.9 percent), the sophomore isn't shy about taking the big shots. His 58 three-point attempts are good for second on the team, and as he showed in a win over South Carolina State (5-for-8), Mercer can light it up at times. The combo guard also averages 3.9 assists per contest, and his athleticism has allowed him to grab 4.8 boards per game, third best on the squad.
Levi Stukes is one of the team's two seniors and its best shooter. Averaging 12.2 points on 49 percent shooting (51 percent on three-pointers), Stukes is second in the SEC with 2.5 threes per game. The 6-1 senior has struggled in Georgia's past four games, however, failing to crack double-digit scoring in all four games and shooting just 6-for-19 from beyond the arc. Before that, though, Stukes put together a four game stretch in which he went 20-for-32 from three-point distance and scored at least 20 points in each game. In two games against Vanderbilt last season, Stukes went 7-for-14 on three-pointers and led the Bulldogs in scoring when the schools met in Athens.
Junior Sundiata Gaines leads Georgia in rebounds (5.8 rpg) and assists (4.0 apg). Standing 6-1, he shares Dennis Felton's loosely defined point guard spot with Mike Mercer. While not a dominant scorer (8.4 ppg), Gaines can be the Bulldogs' biggest game-changer. He has the best assist-to-turnover ratio (1.5-to-1) on a turnover prone team, and he also leads the Bulldogs in takeaways with 2.5 per contest. Gaines is as tough as they come, and Commodore fans remember all too well his put-back to beat Vanderbilt in Memorial last season.
Last season, the Bulldogs suffered from the lack of a post presence to complement their outstanding guard play. That changed when Coach Felton landed junior college transfer Takais Brown. A 6-8, 245 pound junior, Brown is relentless in the paint. He averages 14.3 points while shooting an outstanding 57.9 percent from the field, good for sixth in the SEC. Of Brown's 5.3 rebounds per game, over half come on the offensive end, as his bulky frame is almost impossible to keep off of the glass. The juco transfer may be Georgia's most important player on Saturday. If he kills the Commodores on the boards, the Bulldogs will make Vandy pay with second and third shot attempts.
Rounding out the starting lineup for Georgia in the past four games has been 6-10 junior center Dave Bliss. Though Bliss only averages 13 minutes per game, he's provided the Bulldogs with a big, seasoned body to bang with the likes of Wisconsin's Brian Butch and Florida's Al Horford and Joakim Noah. Sophomore seven-footer Rashad Singleton had held the starting center position, but his minutes have fallen as his play has declined since the beginning of the year.
A more prominent post presence has been senior forward Steve Newman. At 6-9, 230 pounds, Newman has the size to play in the paint, but he often prefers to pop out to shoot the three-pointer. Of his 60 shot attempts, 25 have been from beyond the arc, where he's shooting 48 percent.
With sophomores Terrance Woodbury and Billy Humphrey in the picture, the exceptional Bulldog backcourt goes five deep. At 6-6 and 6-2, respectively, Woodbury and Humphrey each average just over seven points per game, but they get their points in very different ways. The long, athletic Woodbury can work inside and out, possessing one of the team's best mid-range games. Humphrey, on the other hand, is a three-point specialist. Shooting just under 45 percent from distance, he has attempted 65 shots, 49 of which have been three-point tries. On the rare occasion that Humphrey attacks the rim, he makes opponents pay for fouling him by shooting 94 percent from the charity stripe.
At 81.4 points per game, Georgia ranks third in the SEC in scoring offense, indicating the rapid pace at which the Bulldogs like to play. When Mercer, Gaines, and Stukes can play up-tempo and controlled at the same time, they can light up their opponent in a hurry. For example, the team put up 96 points against Gonzaga while turning the ball over only 12 times.
On the other hand, Georgia can play very sloppily at times. Their 18 turnovers per game ranks dead last in the conference, and Mercer, Gaines, and Stukes all average almost three turnovers per contest. During the Bulldogs' recent four game losing streak, they committed between 18 and 26 turnovers in each game while scoring an average of 58.5 points.
As one of the most up-tempo teams in the conference, led by guards who excel at driving the lane, one might expect Georgia to visit the free throw line constantly. On the contrary, though, the Bulldogs have attempted the fewest free throws of any SEC team, and their 64.9 shooting percentage from the charity stripe ranks 10th out of the conference's 12 teams.
Because they are not particularly strong in the post or from the free throw line, the Bulldogs must rely on defense and a frenetic pace to get its points in transition and from the perimeter. Georgia hoists up 62.8 shots per game, trailing only Tennessee in the conference. In wins, the Bulldogs have put up an average of 65.9 shots, while in losses that number goes down to just 57.4 shots per game.
Last season in Athens, the Commodores trounced the Bulldogs to the tune of a 17-point victory. This year, Georgia has undoubtedly matured and improved, while Vanderbilt has been frustratingly inconsistent, particularly away from Memorial Gym. For the ‘Dores to grab an important road win and push their conference record above .500, here are the keys to the game:
- Make ‘em wait: While Georgia is a dangerous offensive team, it is not a disciplined one, especially when trailing. The Commodores would be wise, then, to keep the pace at a crawl, pushing the ball only when they clearly have numbers. Against eager Bulldog shooters, Levi Stukes in particular, defensive pressure well beyond the three-point line will force Dennis Felton's squad to work for their shots. A slower tempo and headstrong defense for a full 35 seconds each possession will accomplish one of two things. Either the ‘Dogs work the ball around and use most of the shot clock to get a decent look, drastically limiting their shot attempts, or they throw up contested shots and likely shoot a low percentage.
- Ball control: This is a little different from controlling the tempo. The Georgia guards are ball hawks and very athletic defenders. They'll play aggressively and physically in an attempt to force turnovers and get easier shots for themselves. To date, Vanderbilt has done a good job of limiting turnovers, and that must continue if the ‘Dores hope to win in Athens. Against Tennessee, another aggressive defense, the Commodores coughed it up just 15 times. If they can match that number or turn it over even less, they have a good chance to get the road win.
- Keep the intensity: The win over Tennessee was a very emotional game for Vanderbilt. Now, they have to come out with just as much intensity to avoid a letdown against Georgia. If Byars and Foster hit early shots, look for their confidence to continue building and for Vanderbilt to get out to an early lead. If Georgia has to play from behind, they are more likely to take bad shots and make hasty mistakes.
Prediction: Vanderbilt has been maddeningly inconsistent, but look for them to ride the emotional high to an early lead and a crucial road win over a very good Georgia team. Final score: Vanderbilt 74, Georgia 68.