Commodores Host Scrappy Georgia Squad

Vanderbilt has had a week off since a dramatic win over Florida, time to prepare for the second half of a homestand that has been kind to the Commodores so far. The finale of a stretch that has vaulted the ‘Dores back into contention for a high NCAA seed comes Tuesday, when Tennessee team rolls into Nashville. Before that, Vanderbilt hosts Georgia in a prelude to a Super Tuesday showdown.

The Commodores pushed their winning streak to five games by continuing to improve on the defensive end.  Vanderbilt didn't put on the offensive display to which Kentucky was subjected, scoring just 61 points in the three-point victory, but its defense allowed for a sub-par scoring performance.  The ‘Dores held the Gators to 39.0 percent shooting and a paltry 1-for-15 from three-point range.  Vanderbilt was the beneficiary of yet another off-day from the Florida shooters, but the Commodore guards played their second straight outstanding defensive game.  Further, A.J. Ogilvy made Marreese Speights a non-factor, holding the big man to six points until some late free throws boosted his total.

Just a few days after hanging 93 points on Kentucky, the ‘Dores proved that they can win with more than one style of play.  As a team, the Commodores shot just 37.9 percent, and Vanderbilt's outside shooters struggled to the tune of 29.6 percent from beyond the arc, a rarity when playing in Memorial Gym.  However, 19 points from Shan Foster, solid efforts from Ogilvy and Alex Gordon, and an all-around commitment to ball control and stout defense made the difference in the nail-biter.  The Commodores committed just 13 turnovers as they continue to do a better job taking care of the ball, and they kept their composure in the closing minutes at a time when the Gators could not.  The game was a good test for Vanderbilt, which will face a similar type of contest against a grind-it-out Georgia team.

Since opening SEC play with a 2-1 record, the Bulldogs (12-12, 3-8) have dropped seven of their last eight games, all against Eastern division foes.  Dennis Felton's squad lost two of its best scorers before the season began, and that lack of offensive firepower has shown up time and again recently.  The Dawgs have averaged a conference-worst 64.5 points per game in SEC play and just 62.1 points in their last seven losses.  They were the second victim on Vanderbilt's current winning streak, falling to the ‘Dores by a score of 67-59.  Georgia's defense, ranked second in the conference, has kept them in games lately, as the Bulldogs lost to Tennessee by three points and Kentucky by just six.

Senior Sundiata Gaines is the Bulldogs' lead guard and best player, and he'll likely be rewarded for his versatility and consistency with a spot on the All-SEC squad at year's end.  Gaines is Georgia's top scorer and tenth in the conference with 17.1 points per game in SEC play.  Armed with a quick first step and the strength to finish in the lane, the 6-1 point guard can score inside as well as out.  He's shooting 48.4 percent from inside the arc in conference, where much of his scoring comes from the strong drives that consistently frustrate opposing guards and big men alike.  Gaines' three-point shooting has fallen off since last season; the senior is shooting just 29.8 percent from beyond the arc on the year, with a slightly better 32.1 percent in SEC play.  Besides being the Bulldog's leading scorer, Gaines leads his team in four other major statistical categories in SEC play.  He's dishing out a team-best 3.7 assists per game, which are also good for eighth in the conference.  According to Ken Pomeroy, the point guard assists 27.9 percent of Georgia's baskets when he's on the floor.  He also leads the Dawgs and ranks eighth in the SEC in rebounding, pulling down 7.5 boards per game.  He's one of two Georgia player to post an assist-to-turnover ratio of greater than 1.0, handing out 1.4 helpers to every turnover.  Finally, Gaines is Georgia's best perimeter defender as well, snatching 1.5 steals per game.  He is the key to the Bulldog offense and will be the focus of the Commodores' defensive effort.

After a blistering start to conference play, junior shooting guard Billy Humphrey has experienced some road bumps.  Humphrey averaged 14.3 points per game in the Dawgs' first four conference games, but went just 7-for-31 from the floor in the next three games.  Things got worse from there, as the Bulldogs' second-leading scorer was suspended for three games on alcohol charges.  Saturday's game will be his second since returning from the suspension.  Like Gaines, Humphrey is adept at scoring from both inside and outside the arc, but he prefers to hurt teams from long distance.  A dangerous outside shooter, the 6-2 junior leads the Bulldogs in three-pointers with 45.  He's also quick off the dribble and can knock down the pull-up jumper.  In his first game since the suspension, Humphrey was slow to get back into the offensive flow, scoring just three points on 1-for-3 shooting.  He'll be less reluctant on Saturday, but the ‘Dores were able to corral the shooter in Athens, holding him to eight points.  Humphrey and Gaines make up a quick and physical – though undersized – defensive backcourt.  The Commodores were able to limit their turnovers in Athens; a repeat performance in that regard will give the home team a big edge.

Stepping into a starting role in Humphrey's absence has been freshman Zac Swansey.  The 6-1 point guard has allowed Gaines to work off the ball at times.  His 1.8 assists per game are good for second on the team, as is his 1.3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.  The first-year Bulldog is averaging 4.6 points per game, but his scoring output will only increase as he becomes more assertive.  Though he's struggled to find any consistency, Swansey has a sweet stroke from beyond the arc and can navigate to the basket for a lay-up or kick-out.  In his last three games, the freshman has put more of his skill set on display, averaging 8.3 points per game over that span, including a ten-point effort in a near-upset of Tennessee.

Versatile swingman Terrance Woodbury adds another scoring option to the floundering Bulldog attack.  The 6-7 junior has averaged 12.5 points over the past seven games, scoring in double figures in six of those games.  Vanderbilt was the only team over that span to hold Woodbury to fewer than ten points.  A true inside-outside threat, he's knocked down nine three-pointers in the four games since the loss to Vanderbilt, and he's got the size and strength to get shots around the basket.  Woodbury has not been as offensively efficient this season, shooting a career-low 37.4 percent from the floor, but that's largely a factor of his increased role in the Georgia offense.  Since moving from power forward to the swingman position, Woodbury has been available to defend the likes of Shan Foster, who he'll likely draw on Saturday.

Senior center Dave Bliss has also taken on an increased role in the offense in conference play.  The 6-10 bruiser has averaged 10.1 points and 6.0 rebounds per game over the last eight contests.  Bliss isn't overly skilled with the ball, but he has a knack for getting buckets by slipping screens and creating position for himself in the low post with his 255-pound frame.  He's shooting a blistering 56.8 percent from the field over the Dawgs' last eight games.  In conference play, Bliss has established himself as one of the league's enforcers, riling up the Kentucky faithful by laying a hard foul on Ramel Bradley and picking up a perhaps undeserved reputation of a "goon."  Regardless of outside perception, the Bulldog center can be a force on the inside.  He held A.J. Ogilvy to 3-of-9 shooting in Athens; the match-up between those two will be a crucial one on Saturday.

The fifth Bulldog starter is freshman Jeremy Price.  The 6-8, 270-pound forward's role had diminished until the Bulldogs faced the Commodores in Athens.  In that game, Price played 32 minutes and terrorized Vanderbilt, scoring a game-high 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting.  Since then, the freshman has scored 19 points in a win over South Carolina and chipped in ten more against Tennessee.  He's shooting 53.4 percent in his last five games, giving the Dawgs a legitimate post threat to go alongside Bliss.  In fact, Price is the more skilled of the two, equipped with the ability to face the basket and beat defenders off of the dribble.  His combination of athleticism and size caused problems for Vanderbilt's power forwards earlier this month.

The emergence of Price has relegated junior guard Corey Butler to a bench role.  The 6-3 Georgia native offers little on the offensive end, averaging just 3.3 points during SEC play.   In limited opportunities, Butler does lead the team in three-point percentage, shooting 42.3 percent from beyond the arc.  His efficiency has dropped off recently, as he's shot at a 21.4 percent clip over the last six games.  Butler's biggest asset is his perimeter defense; he's as quick and physical a guard as you'll find in the conference.

Sophomore Albert Jackson and freshman Chris Barnes add depth to the Georgia frontcourt.  The 6-10, 250-pound Jackson is the Dawgs' best interior defender, averaging a team-best 1.0 block per game in an average of just 13.8 minutes.  Despite offering little offensively, scoring just 1.6 points and committing 1.8 turnovers per game, Jackson is an excellent rebounder, grabbing 3.1 rebounds per game.

Barnes, a 6-7, 250-pound forward, has earned an increase in minutes in conference play.  He's played at least ten minutes in seven of the team's last nine games, and he's averaged 2.7 points and 3.7 rebounds in those games.  His game is very raw at this point, but the athletic forward will likely be an impact player for the Bulldogs in the near future.

The preseason dismissal of Mike Mercer and Takais Brown devastated the Bulldogs' offense.  They rank last in the SEC in scoring and field goal percentage, averaging just 64.5 points per game on 40.0 percent shooting in conference.  Georgia's last-place assist average (10.5 apg) illustrates the stagnation of its offense, an effect of having just two truly talented scorers and a lack of big men with passing ability.  The Bulldogs record an assist on about 46 percent of their field goals, one of the worst rates in the country.  Georgia can make up for its passing deficiencies on the offensive glass, where they grab almost 40 percent of potential rebounds, ranking them among the top 15 offensive rebounding teams in the country.  The ‘Dores did a surprisingly good job on the boards in the teams' first meeting, limiting the Dawgs to just nine offensive rebounds.

Defensively, the Bulldogs are one of the SEC's better teams.  They've allowed 66.9 points per game in conference play, good for second in the league, and their backcourt has been a big reason for that.  With a bevy of athletic guards, perimeter defense is one of Georgia's strong points.  The Dawgs allow SEC opponents to shoot just 28.6 percent from three-point range.  Thanks in part to Alex Gordon's 4-for-8 from beyond the arc, the ‘Dores managed to shoot 36.0 percent on threes in Athens.  If the hosts can put together their average shooting performance in Memorial, they'll have done better than most teams against the tenacious Georgia defense.

Saturday's contest features two teams whose seasons couldn't look much different, especially recently.  The Commodores have won five in a row, including a pair of nail-biters, while the Bulldogs have dropped seven of eight, including four games they lost by six points or less.  A rematch with rival Tennessee is on the horizon, but the ‘Dores cannot afford to look ahead against a scrappy Georgia squad desperate for a win.  To push the winning streak to six heading into the showdown with the Vols, here are the keys for the Commodores:

  • Instant Replay:  Like Florida, the Bulldogs will aim for the upset by slowing the game down, grinding out every possession in the half-court, and putting heavy pressure on the Commodore shooters.  The ‘Dores shot just 29.6 percent from beyond the arc against Florida, and the Bulldogs will try for a similar result.  Even if the Dawgs do shut down the three-point shot, the Commodores proved just a week ago that they can win anyway.  By keeping the rebounding margin close and turnovers down, Vanderbilt matches up very well in a half-court setting with most teams.  Ogilvy has returned to form lately, and Foster has become more assertive in the mid-range, giving the Commodore attack outstanding balance.  If Shan or Ross Neltner can present a significant threat from 15 feet, the Vanderbilt offense will be balanced enough to handle the Bulldogs.  On defense, the ‘Dores need simply to continue keeping the point guard out of the lane.  They've used zone effectively against Gaines before, and they can do it again if necessary.
  • Crash Course:  In their lone win in the past eight games, the Bulldogs outrebounded South Carolina by 21 and grabbed 16 offensive boards.  The Commodores know all too well what that feels like, as Kentucky pulled down 22 more rebounds than Vanderbilt in a January win over the ‘Dores.  However, the Commodores have improved on the glass lately, posting a +11 rebounding margin during their current five-game winning streak.  Sundiata Gaines snatched 11 rebounds against the ‘Dores in the teams' last meeting; don't expect a positive rebounding margin on Saturday, but if the Vanderbilt guards can do a better job of keeping Georgia's off of the glass, the Bulldog rebounding advantage will be negligible.

Prediction:  Normally, a match-up like this would have all the hallmarks of a trap game.  The Commodores have won five in a row, and Tennessee visits Memorial in a few short days.  A scrappy Bulldog squad could spoil the Vanderbilt homestand a game early if not for its lack of offensive firepower.  In Memorial, Georgia just doesn't have enough to keep up with the Commodores' scorers, even if they slow it to a snail's pace.  The Dawgs won't get in the way of an epic clash on Tuesday.  Final score:  Vanderbilt 75, Georgia 63. Top Stories