The Commodores fell a half game behind idle Kentucky, but remained even with Georgia in the SEC East, as the Bulldogs lost to Tennessee. On Saturday, the deadlocked teams square off in an evening contest crucial in determining the conference pecking order.
Since they defeated Vanderbilt in Athens in January, Coach Dennis Felton's Bulldogs have won three of their five games, beating Kentucky and LSU at home and winning at Arkansas. Of the victories, two came by just three points, and the other came in overtime. Further, Georgia's loss to Alabama was the result of a Ronald Steele tiebreaking buzzer-beater.
In the first two months of the season, Georgia relied heavily on its talented backcourt to carry them to wins. Lately, however, the guards' burden has been lightened by the breakout of junior college transfer Takais Brown. While the backcourt trio of Levi Stukes, Sundiata Gaines, and Mike Mercer has struggled at times since their last meeting with Vanderbilt, the 6-8 Brown has come into his own. Averaging 16.4 points and 7.2 rebounds in the last five games, the burly forward has taken over as Georgia's scoring and rebounding leader while shooting 59 percent from the floor. While he scored just six points in 24 minutes against Vanderbilt, Brown has shown in the past five games that he can take on a significant part of the Bulldogs' scoring load.
Though Brown didn't log his best game in Georgia's 12 point win over the Commodores in January, the team as a whole shot a blistering 55 percent from the field. Senior guard Levi Stukes was the catalyst in the victory, scoring a team-high 23 points on 7-of-13 shooting, including four three-pointers. Since torching the ‘Dores, Stukes has struggled a little. He's averaging just over ten points per game in the Bulldogs' last five, just once scoring above his season average of 12.3 points. Coming into the game with Vandy, Stukes was shooting a red-hot 51 percent from beyond the arc; since then, he's gone just 10-of-30 on three-pointers. Despite his recent struggles, the Commodores must give a better effort to contain the senior on Saturday. If they allow Stukes to get open looks, chances are he'll spring back into form in Memorial.
Lately, sophomore standout Mike Mercer has suffered a decline in production. Through Georgia's first 15 games, the 6-4 guard scored fewer than 10 points just three times; in the last three games, he has scored seven, five, and five points on a meager 23 percent from the floor. Cold shooting and questionable shot selection plagued Mercer in the game against Vanderbilt, too. The sophomore shot just 3-of-9 en route to seven points in the win over the Commodores.
The third member of the outstanding Bulldog guard trio – and the one playing the best recently – is 6-1 junior Sundiata Gaines. Over the past five games, Georgia's most natural point guard is averaging 15.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game. In the win over Vandy, Gaines played a good overall game, logging nine points, five rebounds, and a game-high seven assists. The junior hurt the Commodores in the Bulldogs' win in Memorial last season as well. He capped a 13 point effort with the game-winning tip-in with 18 seconds left to play. If Vanderbilt hopes to contain a perimeter attack that burned them in Athens, they have to pressure the hot-shooting Gaines (13-of-26 on three-pointers in the past five games).
Rounding out the Georgia starting lineup is 6-10 center Dave Bliss. Though the big man doesn't log a lot of minutes for the Bulldogs, he provides a body in the post to bang with opponent forwards early in the game. In the contest against Vandy, Bliss gave his team a huge spark in the best game he's played all year. On 5-of-5 shooting, he scored ten points to go along with eight rebounds. In the five games since, Bliss has scored 12 points and grabbed 10 rebounds total. He shouldn't be a threat on Saturday, but if the ‘Dores don't play better post defense, Bliss may chip in another six or eight points, and that could be the difference in what should be a hotly contested game.
Sophomore Billy Humphrey, Georgia's primary scoring option off the bench, also chose the Vanderbilt game to give his best performance of the year. On a night when Gaines and Mercer didn't provide their usual scoring punch, Humphrey went off for 17 points, knocking down four out of eight attempts from beyond the arc. Along with the efforts of Terence Woodbury, Steve Newman, and Rashad Singleton, Humphrey helped Georgia to 30 bench points. The Commodores must limit Humphrey's shot attempts as if they were guarding Mercer, Stukes, or Gaines. The sophomore can really shoot it – his 1.45 points per shot are best among Bulldog regulars.
Derrick Byars led the Commodores in scoring in Athens. His 23 points came on 8-of-16 shooting. Aside from Dan Cage (17 points on 6-for-11 shooting), the rest of the Vanderbilt team suffered from an unseasonably cold shooting night. Their 38.6 percent from the field was the Commodores' second-worst SEC performance. Turning the ball over just 11 times, the outcome might have been different had Vandy just made a few more open looks.
On Saturday, the ‘Dores must improve upon their efficiency from the last time they met the Bulldogs. However, the defense was more responsible for the loss in Athens. The 55 percent Georgia shot from the floor was the best shooting night Vanderbilt has allowed in SEC play. The front line of Brown, Bliss, Newman, and Singleton went for a combined 12-for-15 from the field, not to mention the 39 percent the Bulldogs shot from three-point distance.
Saturday's game with the Bulldogs is an important one for Vandy. The Commodores could use a confidence boost after the second-half letdown in Gainesville, and revenge on this Georgia team would do the trick. Further, a win would give the ‘Dores a one game edge on the ‘Dogs to start the second half of conference play. To grab that victory and get back on the winning track, here are the keys to the game for Vanderbilt:
- Get Shan in the Game: In the first meeting with Georgia, Foster shot a dismal 3-of-13 from the field, including 0-for-5 on three-pointers. With Mercer and Gaines, the Bulldog perimeter defense is formidable, but Shan should be able to get better shots. He tends to thrive in big-game atmospheres in Memorial, and he needs to do so on Saturday. The crowd and the team feed off of Foster's energy; if he gets hot early, look for the Commodores to build a quick lead. The bottom line, though, is that Shan has to knock down his open looks. Byars has been great, but he'll need help from his wingman down the stretch.
- Pack it in: The Vanderbilt forwards had an all-around disappointing game in Athens. Not only were they not a factor on the offensive end, but they allowed a mediocre Georgia front line shoot 80 percent from the floor. Besides Takais Brown, the Bulldogs don't have a forward that should be an offensive threat to the Commodores. Since the last Georgia game, Vandy has done a much better job of defending the post against superior frontcourt talent. If they continue to limit their opponents' shots in the paint, the ‘Dores will have a good chance of evening the season series with Georgia.
- First Strike: The Bulldogs are coming off a disappointing defeat themselves, as they lost to a Chris Lofton-less Tennessee team. Like Vandy, Georgia also needs a win Saturday to solidify a shot at an NCAA bid. Consequently, the ‘Dogs will be eager to take the crowd of the game and take the hope away from the Commodores. As dejected as the ‘Dores must have felt after the second half against Florida, they must come out with energy to jump on the Bulldogs and incite the Vandy faithful. If Byars, Foster, and company can get out to an early lead, the Memorial crowd could make it a long night for the ‘Dogs.
Prediction: If the Commodores get this one, their chances of reaching the Big Dance will look very strong. They'll be in the top half of the division, with winnable games on the horizon. Coach Kevin Stallings knows this, and he'll have his team eager and ready to make a statement at home. The ‘Dores won't suffer through another terrible shooting night against these Bulldogs. Memorial will be rocking, visions of March Madness dancing in their heads, and the hometown team won't disappoint. Final score: Vanderbilt 82, Georgia 74,