The Commodores travel to Athens, Ga., on Saturday to take on the University of Georgia. While it might seem logical for the No. 18 team in America to look past the Bulldogs to next week's visit by Tennessee, other schools have gone into Georgia with a similar mindset and come away with a loss: Illinois, Georgia Tech, and VU's orange-clad rival from Knoxville.
With that warning in hand, what would a VU win down in Georgia do for the Commodores?
While placement in the NCAA Tournament is almost assured, a loss to the Bulldogs could hurt the Dores' seeding in the tournament. Vanderbilt is in excellent position to attain a No. 4 seed, and possibly as high as a No. 2 if Kentucky goes down in Memorial Gym and the SEC Tournament is won. Ah, but we're getting ahead of ourselves again. A truly lofty NCAA seeding simply won't materialize if the VU crew leaves Athens with a bad loss to Georgia.
The SEC East has clearly established itself as the better division in the conference. A win Saturday in the Peach State would keep Vandy tied with Kentucky for first place, one game ahead of that squad from Knoxville. Both of those teams still have to visit Nashville, with UT arriving next week. Vanderbilt can virtually eliminate Tennessee from SEC title contention by beating Georgia and then handling the Vols once again. Should VU get upset Saturday and then lose to Tennessee next Tuesday, Vandy would be in a position where it is forced to battle the buzzer-beater boys of Florida for third place in the division.
This is not the position Kevin Stallings's squad wants to find itself in next Wednesday morning, so it is important the Dores take care of business down South; especially with UT, Ole Miss, and Kentucky coming up in the next two weeks.
The Dores' past game against Mississippi State should help alleviate any overconfidence they had begun to cultivate. After nearly blowing a comfortable 14-point lead with four minutes to play, it should be fairly clear to the boys wearing black and gold that if you choose to let up, teams will certainly take advantage of that generosity and turn an easy victory into a major stress test.
So, let's find out more about this Georgia team.
Georgia, with a record of 9-11 (1-6 SEC), can clearly be bad, as evidenced by home losses to Wofford and St. John's. However, the Dawgs can beat anybody if the opponent is not prepared. Just ask Bruce Pearl at Tennessee or Paul Hewitt at Georgia Tech.
That being said, Coach Mark Fox's squad has struggled apart from the upset over Tennessee. The past week was also a rough one for the Bulldogs. With a chance for an SEC turnaround, facing South Carolina and Arkansas, Georgia took two hard-luck losses; by one to the Gamecocks (78-77) and by four to the Razorbacks (72-68).
Against Arkansas Wednesday night in Stegeman Coliseum, Georgia built a 37-22 halftime lead. The Bulldogs then went ice cold in the second half and saw Arkansas blow past them.
The team Fox has inherited is inexperienced to say the least. Forward Trey Thompkins is the only returning player who scored double figures in points a year ago, and guard Dustin Ware is the only returning Dawg who averaged at least seven points per game a year ago.
Georgia does not have postseason hopes. But that does not mean this team will roll over for the Dores when Vandy comes into Athens.
Guard– Dustin Ware – Sophomore 5'11", 182; 2009-10: 8.1 ppg, 3.1 apg
Ware is one of only two returning starters for the Bulldogs. The sophomore was the first Georgia point guard to dish out more than 100 assists since 2001. While Fox would have hoped for a little more scoring out of Ware this season, he is a short, powerful guard who can get himself into the middle of a defense. He is more of a driver than a shooter. Ware shoots only 35 % from the field so Jermaine Beal (or whichever Commodore guards him) would be wise to play a step off and allow him to shoot.
Guard– Travis Leslie – Sophomore 6'4", 202; 2009-10: 14.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg
Leslie is another backcourt sophomore. He also has been one of the best surprises for Mark Fox. While he also is not known for his shooting prowess, Leslie has been in double figures in all but two games this year. He rarely attempts 3-pointers, but made two of his six attempts on Wednesday against the Razorbacks. Leslie was also one of the heroes of the Tennessee game, scoring 19 against the Vols. Leslie – who does a great job of running the wing on the break and attempting athletic dunks – is the most exciting Dawg to watch, though Vandy fans will not want to see him the way their Knoxville rivals did.
Guard – Ricky McPhee –Senior, 6'1", 184; 2009-10: 10.4 ppg, 41.6 % 3 PT
McPhee is the designated sharpshooter in the Georgia offense. The senior transferred to Georgia following his sophomore year at Gardner-Webb, where incidentally, he was a part of that small school's massive upset over Kentucky in Rupp Arena. McPhee has improved his scoring by nearly seven points per game under Fox and has taken at least three 3-pointers in all but two games this season, shooting nearly 42 % from beyond the arc. Unlike many long-range shooters, though, McPhee also has the ability to shoot mid-range jump shots. Vanderbilt needs to be aware that when he puts the ball on the deck, he may not be going all the way to the rim.
Forward/Center– Albert Jackson – Senior, 6'11", 265; 2009-10: 3.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg
Fox would like to see more out of his senior post player. While Jackson hauled in nine rebounds in a 16-point loss to Florida, he has had no more than six in his other conference games; that's not what Georgia fans want to see from a big body inside. Jackson is also nonexistent in the Bulldog offense, taking no more than six shots in a game this year. He does have his place in Fox's zone defense, however, as his large body and extended reach take up space and limit the interior passing ability of opponents.
Forward – Trey Thompkins – Sophomore 6'9", 247; 2009-10: 17.6 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 45.5 % 3 PT
Young like most of the Bulldogs, Thompkins is the offensive leader for the Georgia attack. Only a sophomore, he considered transferring but Fox changed his mind. He has been outstanding in SEC play, with his lowest scoring game being a 17-point performance at Kentucky, a game in which the Bulldogs remained competitive late in regulation. Thompkins uses his athleticism to get good looks around the basket, but he's also shooting over 50 % from three in conference play. His athletic body can make a big difference around the basket defensively.
The Bulldogs get very little scoring from their bench. Forward Jeremy Price plays the most of the UGA reserves at just under 18 minutes a game, and he averages 6.4 ppg/4.1 rpg. He is a junior. Ebuka Anyaorah provides assistance in the backcourt, playing about 10 minutes and chipping in 2.5 ppg. The starters do most of the work, which figures for a squad with a new coach and little (positive) basketball history over the past few seasons.
Keys to the Game
1. Play within your style – It is often the case that when teams face what is thought to be a lesser opponent, players try to do things they are not capable of doing. Put another way, they attempt to be what they are not. Usually, this happens when mid-range shooters attempt threes early in the shot clock, or when sketchy ballhandlers try to generate fast breaks when there is really not an opportunity to attack in transition. While these things might seem easy to do, since the thought process is "We are better," teams actually blow out lesser opponents by doing the same things that beat quality teams. What are these things for Vanderbilt? An inside-out offensive attack; defensive balance between man and zone with excellent defensive rebounding; and good shot selection. If Vandy wants to come down, make one pass and fire a three, it is inviting the Bulldogs to hang around.
2. Attack Georgia's big men - Mark Fox has little frontline depth. (For that matter, he has little depth everywhere on his roster.) If VU attacks the baseline and the low block of the Georgia zone, it will create foul trouble for Georgia's post players and will in turn cause that zone to shrink. That will pave the way for Jermaine Beal and Co. to open up the long-range artillery over Georgia defenders who will be out of position.