Commodores Take on Struggling Bulldogs

Back at Memorial for the first time in two weeks, Vanderbilt made the most of its pit stop at home. With a 78-71 win over Auburn, the Commodores put another disappointing road trip behind them, moving to 3-4 in league play. A stretch of four straight home games is right around the corner, but first, the ‘Dores get two more shots at an SEC road win. First up, the Georgia Bulldogs.

As they did against LSU after their last 0-2 road trip, the Commodores regained their collective shooting touch against Auburn.  For the game, the ‘Dores shot 48.2 percent, the second highest mark they've recorded in conference play.  Four starters scored in double figures, led by A.J. Ogilvy's 19 points, and Alex Gordon and Shan Foster combined for 7 three-pointers en route to scoring 17 and 16, respectively.  Comfortable as always in Memorial Gym, Vanderbilt shot 40 percent from beyond the arc for only the second time in SEC play. 

Defensively, the Commodores couldn't contain the Tigers' Frank Tolbert, who exploded for 32 points, including 5 three-pointers.  While the visitors managed to outshoot Vanderbilt from long range (40.7 percent), the ‘Dores held down the paint, blocking seven shots and allowing Auburn to shoot just 34 percent on two-point attempts.  They'll need to maintain that type of physical interior defense against a Georgia team full of bruisers.

A year removed from finishing 8-8 in conference and just missing out on an NCAA Tournament berth, the Bulldogs (11-8, 2-4) seemed ready to get back to the Big Dance this season.  The loss of Levi Stukes to graduation hurt, but Dennis Felton's squad was returning four starters and most of its depth.  However, Coach Felton first suspended, and then booted his leading scorers, forward Takais Brown and guard Mike Mercer, for separate violations of team rules in the off-season.  The Dawgs have adjusted to the loss of two of their best players, picking up some nice wins at home over Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, and Arkansas, but they haven't quite been able to replace the lost scoring.  Georgia has the lowest-scoring offense in the conference, averaging just 68.9 points per game.

Even with Mercer and Brown still around, Georgia followers would be hard pressed not to call senior point guard Sundiata Gaines the team's best player.  As versatile a guard as the SEC has to offer, the 6-1 Gaines can do just about anything on a basketball court.  He's pound-for-pound the best rebounder in the conference, leading the Bulldogs with 5.9 boards per game and 41 offensive rebounds on the year.  Gaines also leads his team and ranks seventh in the league in assists, handing out 4.1 helpers per game.  While he's not an outstanding shooter (41.9 percent), the senior is quick and strong enough to create his own shots around the basket.  As a result, Gaines ranks second on the team in scoring with 13.0 points per game despite poor shooting from three-point range (25.7 percent) and from the free throw line (53.4 percent).  Perhaps most important to the Dawgs is Gaines' defense.  The tough New York native has earned the reputation of a lockdown perimeter defender, a reputation supported by his team-leading 1.9 steals per game.  Vanderbilt's ball handlers must be especially prudent against the leader of the Bulldogs, as he'll make the Commodore backcourt uncomfortable all game long.

Early in the season, it looked as if Georgia might be without shooting guard Billy Humphrey as well, as the junior was charged with weapon possession after a pocketknife was found in his dorm room.  Humphrey was quickly reinstated, though, and he has enjoyed a breakout season ever since.  The 6-2 shooter leads the team with 13.3 points per game, half of which come from behind the arc.  Humphrey's 42 three-pointers are good for ninth in the conference, and he's shooting them at a 36.2 percent clip.  Because he relies primarily on trifectas to score, the junior has been mercurial all season long.  Conference play best captures that inconsistency; he's averaging 18.5 points in SEC wins and just 8.3 points in conference losses.  Humphrey is neither a great distributor (1.4 apg) or rebounder (3.7 rpg), but he is the other half of a pair of very good perimeter defenders.  Like Gaines, Humphrey averages almost two steals per game and will make life difficult for Alex Gordon and Jermaine Beal.

When Mike Mercer was dismissed from the team, opportunity knocked for 6-7 swingman Terrance Woodbury.  The versatile combo forward ranks third on the team with 9.3 points per game, but he's struggled offensively at times this season.  Woodbury is shooting just 36.8 percent from the floor, lowest among Georgia's regular rotation players.  Meanwhile, he has fallen from respectability from beyond the arc as well.  After shooting 41.3 percent on three-point attempts last season, the junior is converting on just 24.6 of his long range shots this year.  Woodbury nevertheless possesses an effective inside-out game; he can create shots around the basket against smaller defenders, and he can beat taller, slower opponents off the dribble to get to the rim or pull up from 15 feet and out.  Defensively, the Bulldogs will likely insert an extra forward into the lineup so that Woodbury can guard Shan Foster – the junior is a long, athletic defender who matches up with Foster size-wise.

The man in the middle for the Dawgs is 6-10 senior Dave Bliss.  Enjoying arguably his best season as a Bulldog, Bliss' 7.5 points per game are a career-high, and his 4.9 rebounds per game are good for second on the team.  At 255 pounds, he is a true banger on the low block, always willing to do the dirty work.  While he's not the most skilled offensive player, Bliss has a knack for putting himself in good position to score, as indicated by his team best 57.3 percent shooting.  Whether he's putting back a teammate's miss or slipping a screen, the Georgia big man has been an important contributor on offense, especially over the last three games.  Bliss is averaging 12.3 points and 6.3 rebounds over that span.  In his match-up with A.J. Ogilvy, the senior will try to muscle the freshman out of position on every possession to frustrate the precocious Aussie; if Ogilvy keeps his composure and plays with a chip on his shoulder, he has the talent and athleticism to abuse the bulky Bliss offensively.

Rounding out the Bulldog starting lineup is 6-3 Corey Butler.  The junior guard is averaging just 3.8 points and 2.7 rebounds in 15.8 minutes per game, but he's seen an increase in playing time over the last two games.  Butler is a quick defender who adds to an already outstanding defensive backcourt, but his height could be a concern if matched up against Shan Foster.  Offensively, the junior has been Georgia's most efficient player despite his limited output.  He's shooting 41.7 from three-point range and 82.1 percent from the charity stripe en route to a team-best 1.55 points per shot.

Freshman forward Jeremy Price has been a welcome addition to the depleted Bulldog frontcourt.  The 6-8, 270-pound power forward has a well refined skill set to go along with his massive size.  Shooting 56.9 percent from the floor, Price can already score in a variety of ways around the basket, as he showed during a stretch of five straight games in which he scored at least 10 points.  The freshman's minutes have declined recently, though; he played just 11 minutes against South Carolina and three against Kentucky.  If Price sees significant time against Vanderbilt, his size on the block could cause problems for Ross Neltner or Darshawn McClellan, but the Commodore forwards would have the advantage on the offensive end against the slower Price.

Freshman Zac Swansey adds some depth to the Georgia backcourt.  The 6-1 point guard ranks second on the team with 1.8 assists per game, and he and Sundiata Gaines are the only two Bulldogs with an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 1-to-1.  Swansey averages 4.2 points per game, and he has the skills to increase that as he matures.  The freshman has a smooth stroke from long range, but he is also adept at getting into the lane and finishing or finding an open teammate on the perimeter.

With the transfer of 7-footer Rashaad Singleton, Felton has had to count on sophomore Albert Jackson and freshman Chris Barnes for depth in the frontcourt.  The Dawgs can insert the 6-10, 250-pound Jackson in place of Bliss without losing anything on defense.  The sophomore can rebound, averaging 3.2 boards in 14 minutes per game, and he's the team's leading shot blocker (1.2 bpg).  However, Jackson's offensive game is very limited; his season-high is just four points.

Barnes, a 6-7, 250-pound freshman, has increased his impact over the last three games, averaging four points and five rebounds in 12 minutes per game over that span.  Similar to Jeremy Price in size and athleticism, Barnes does not have the offensive repertoire that Price does.  He gets most of his points off of garbage buckets inside.

Having lost three of their four best scorers – Stukes, Mercer, and Brown – for one reason or another, the Bulldogs have shifted from a relatively fast-paced team to a squad that prefers to slow the tempo and win with hard-nosed, physical defense.  Georgia's top three scorers are all perimeter players who shoot for low percentages, and the Dawgs are not a good passing team, recording an assist on just 45 percent of field goals.  Opponents that can stop the Bulldogs from grabbing offensive boards and their guards from penetrating will almost certainly hold them to 35 percent shooting or worse. 

Their offensive limitations forces Georgia to play great defense to win games.  Gaines, Humphrey, Butler, and Woodbury are all good perimeter defenders, and the Bulldogs hold opponents to just 31.7 percent from long-range as a result.  The Dawgs are vulnerable against skilled, offensive-minded post players and penetrating guards, as their post players are not overly athletic or quick.

After getting back on the winning track at home against Auburn, the Commodores are looking for a breakthrough on the road on Wednesday.  A Georgia team that has lost three straight and struggled to score provides Vanderbilt with a decent chance of getting its first conference road win.  For the ‘Dores to win their second straight and move to .500 in league play, here are the keys to the game:

  • Fire with Fire:  The Commodores haven't shot well on the road all season, and Stegeman Coliseum hasn't been kind to the ‘Dores in recent years.  Consequently, Vanderbilt cannot count on shooting the lights out and hanging 85 points on these Bulldogs.  Even with the Commodores' recent defensive struggles, they can win playing Georgia's game.  The Dawgs barely average fewer turnovers per game than the Commodores, but considering the hosts' significantly slower tempo, they have worse turnover problems than Vanderbilt.  Believe it or not, the ‘Dores can win even if they shoot relatively poorly.  If they can keep Gaines out of the lane and the Bulldog bigs off the offensive glass, the Dawgs will make enough mistakes and miss enough outside shots to give the ‘Dores a win.  Georgia has shot a combined 68 three-pointers and converted on just 17.6 percent from deep over the last three games – all losses.
  • Protect the Rock:  Despite their offensive shortcomings, the Bulldogs showed they can score in bunches when their opponents get careless against their quick, physical perimeter defenders.  The Dawgs pounded Arkansas by consistently forcing the Razorback guards into turnovers.  The Hogs committed 17 turnovers, and Georgia scored 82 points in the victory.  Vanderbilt is averaging 18.25 turnovers per game in conference road games, and Jermaine Beal has been the only consistently steady Commodore guard.  In what looks to be a slower paced game than the Commodores' previous three road games, the ‘Dores should win if they can turn it over 14 or fewer times.

Prediction:  The Commodores have to win at least a couple of conference road games to get a good seed in the NCAA Tournament.  Losing at an inferior Georgia team to fall to 3-5 in the SEC would once again rob the ‘Dores of any momentum they gained on Saturday.  The Vanderbilt guards will struggle to keep Gaines out of the lane, but if they can close out on Humphrey on the perimeter, the ‘Dores should be able to stifle the Bulldog attack.  Final score: Vanderbilt 76, Georgia 70.


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