Vanderbilt could have done more than merely putting the No. 2 team in the nation on the ropes. Vandy would have knocked the door down if it could have shot better than 2 of 20 from beyond the arc. Jermaine Beal and Brad Tinsley exemplified the Commodores' struggles from downtown, going a combined 0 of 9.
While the poor shooting might give coach Kevin Stallings and Vandy fans some concern (as does the fact the UK game was the Dores' lowest scoring night of the year), Vanderbilt can now reset its goals for the remainder of the year and move beyond this loss.
What the VU basketball team must also shrug off, however, is the fact that its dream of winning the SEC regular season championship is virtually gone, barring a Kentucky collapse. Let's face it, a two-game deficit (plus a head-to-head sweep loss) with four to play is almost insurmountable for the VU crew in the face of Big Blue.
So, what should Vanderbilt focus on now if winning the SEC is out of the picture?
The first priority is to maintain its grip on second place to put itself in a prime position for the SEC Tournament. While the most important game in achieving that goal is defeating Florida in Gainesville on March 2, dropping either one of this week's matchups against Georgia or Arkansas would give the Gators a chance to pass the Commodores in the standings. Why is finishing second important? For one thing, it puts VU in the opposite bracket from Kentucky and offers the possibility of another rematch in the SEC final, which as most Commodore fans know is in Nashville.
The other reason why the No. 2 seed from the SEC East is so important is that it would give the Dores a first-round bye on the Thursday of the SEC Tournament. While it's true that a number of SEC teams have won four games in four days to take home the tourney title in the past 15 years (Arkansas did it, Florida did it, and who could forget Georgia's miracle journey in the 2008 event, when the Georgia Dome was damaged by a tornado?), the point remains that it's easier to win when you need only three wins and not four. Moreover, with the NCAA Tournament on the horizon, no upper-tier team wants to exhaust itself winning the conference tournament. Kentucky has the depth needed to spread the wealth (and the minutes) over the course of three days, but Vandy doesn't want to be chasing SEC hardware over the course of four days. To be honest, if Vandy falls to the third seed in the SEC East and has to play a first-rounder on Thursday, it would be just as well if the Dores lost in the semifinals on Saturday (not earlier, though) and spared themselves a little strain. This second seed in the East is a very big deal.
Vandy's other goal – connected with the pursuit of the two seed in the East – should be to earn a No. 3 seed in the NCAAs. Based on its current No. 16 AP ranking (and its inexplicable No. 20 ranking in the Coaches' Poll,) the Commodores are currently in line for a No. 4 or 5 seed. Should the Dores finish out the year 4-0 and get themselves to the SEC Tournament final, a No. 3 seed is a very real possibility. With a seeding like that, anything is possible come NCAA Tournament time, precisely because VU would avoid Kansas, Syracuse, or a fourth number one seed (likely Purdue, but not yet guaranteed) in the Sweet 16.
The road to superior seedings – in the SEC and the NCAAs – starts with a rematch against the Georgia Bulldogs.
Coach Mark Fox's Bulldogs have had their share of upset wins this season. Illinois, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, and the Commodores have all fallen to Georgia. The Bulldogs, based on this resume, would have quite a case for the postseason if not for the other games they have dropped this season.
There is one common thread running through all of UGA's upsets, however: None of them have come on the road. Georgia is an awful 0-9 on the road this year and will be making its second trip in eight days to the state of Tennessee when it takes on VU Thursday night.
Georgia has been a break-even ballclub since its Feb. 6 breakthrough, a 72-58 win over the Commodores. The Bulldogs followed that upset win by getting drilled in a 19-point loss at the hands of the Auburn Tigers, the same Tigers who share an identical 4-8 SEC record with UGA.
Georgia rebounded from that Auburn loss to defeat South Carolina by five, only to then have Tennessee avenge a January loss in Athens by topping the Dawgs, 69-60, in Knoxville. Fox's squad arrives at Memorial Gym fresh off of a six-point win over ‘Bama, 76-70.
Balanced scoring has been the key in Georgia's recent victories. On nights where one player is scoring double-figures, usually forward Trey Thompkins, the game usually ends in a loss. If three Bulldogs are getting 10-plus points, they will have a chance to pull the upset. Three Bulldogs were in double-figures in the first takedown of the Dores: Thompkins and Travis Leslie posted 17, and Dustin Ware chipped in with 10.
Of special interest for VU fans Thursday night will be how Stallings' club attacks Georgia's zone defense. Fox knows he cannot match up with the more talented teams he faces, so he has been relegated to simply controlling the inside and hoping opponents make the game a three-point shooting contest.
It worked on February 6. Will it on Thursday night?
Guard – Dustin Ware – Sophomore 5'11", 182; 2009-10: 8.0 ppg, 3.3 apg
Ware is one of only two returning starters for the Bulldogs. Ware is also the first Georgia point guard to dish out more than 100 assists since 2001. Fox has wanted more scoring out of his sophomore point guard, but after a stretch of three games in double figures (one of them the Vanderbilt game) his scoring has slightly dropped. Ware has been excellent at creating scoring opportunities for his teammates, dishing out 20 assists in his last five games while committing only five turnovers in that same span. Jermaine Beal would be wise to play a step off Ware and not allow him to create more shots for the other Bulldogs on the floor.
Guard – Travis Leslie – Sophomore 6'4", 202; 2009-10: 14.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg
Leslie has been one of the more pleasant surprises for Fox this year, hitting the double-figure mark in scoring in all but three games this year. Dores fans of course remember Leslie for his 17 points on 8-of-9 shooting in the first game between the two schools. He is a modern-day oddity for a wing player, in that he rarely attempts shots beyond the three-point arc. He has only taken five triples in SEC play, but he has made three of those shots. Leslie is an exciting player to watch with his athletic dunks… unless of course you are cheering against him.
Guard – Ricky McPhee –Senior, 6'1", 184; 2009-10: 10.0 ppg, .396 3PT %
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 its 2008 upset over Kentucky in Rupp Arena. McPhee is one of those increasingly rare players who can shoot both the 3-pointer and the mid-range jump shot. Apart from shooting 3 of 4 beyond the arc against Tennessee, McPhee has struggled shooting the ball as of late. Fox is hoping that McPhee's 4-of-10 performance against Alabama, while not great, is a sign of improvement in his shooting. McPhee went just 6 of 22 in the three games following the Vandy upset.
Forward – Chris Barnes – Junior, 6'8", 240; 2009-10: 3.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg
Barnes, a junior, has replaced Jeremy Price in the Bulldog starting lineup after Price had filled in for struggling senior Albert Jackson. Barnes rewarded Fox's faith by scoring 10 points, going a perfect 4 of 4 from the field, and grabbing five rebounds against Alabama. He'll probably find himself matched up against Ogilvy on Thursday since Georgia's other frontline player, Thompkins, frequently is on the perimeter within the framework of the Bulldog offense. If Barnes' performance against the Tide earned him a second start, it will be interesting to see how he responds: Before the Alabama game he had not played more than 14 minutes since Jan. 2 against Missouri. He played 23 minutes in the ‘Bama game.
Forward – Trey Thompkins – Sophomore 6'9", 247; 2009-10: 17.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg, .400 3PT %
Yet another sophomore in a young Bulldog lineup, Thompkins has been outstanding for Fox. Thompkins began a tremendous string of games on Jan. 5 against Georgia Tech when he scored 20. His only poor performance in SEC play was a six-point outing in a loss at Auburn, one game after he was "held" to 17 by Vandy. Thompkins has responded with a vengeance following that six-point game, posting 20-plus points in all three games, highlighted by a 25-point showing at Tennessee. Thompkins uses his athleticism to get good looks around the basket, but he has also shown a propensity to stretch defenses with his outside shooting. He has opened himself up to some criticism, however, with the number of 3-pointers he has taken, making only 2 of 10 in his past four games. (He was 1 of 2 against VU.) His athletic body can make a big difference around the basket defensively, as Ogilvy and Jeffery Taylor can attest.
The Bulldogs continue to get very little scoring from their bench. Forward Jeremy Price, who earned one start before being replaced by Barnes, scores just under seven points a game and former starting center Albert Jackson averages 3.6 points per game. Georgia's only backcourt reserve scoring comes from Ebuka Anyaorah, who scores 2.5 a game.
Keys to the Game
1. Penetrate the Georgia zone. Vanderbilt has a tendency, as do many teams, to stand around and shoot 3-pointers instead of penetrating the gaps of the defense. A 2-3 zone provides three gaps an offense can take advantage of: the top of the key and the two wings. Attacking those areas with the dribble causes two defenders to have responsibility for the basketball, meaning someone will be open somewhere. Dribble penetration also creates inside scoring against a zone, since opposing big men have to step out to defend the basketball. Another method is penetrating the zone with the pass. Expect to see Jeffery Taylor getting the ball at the high post where Georgia will have a difficult time containing him; Taylor can create opportunities for himself and Ogilvy inside.
2. Play 40 minutes. Vanderbilt led Georgia 36-28 at the 15:42 mark of the second half on Feb. 6 in Athens, only to lose (and handily at that) down the stretch. Whether that was due to looking ahead to Tennessee, believing UGA was beat, or simply outstanding play by the Bulldogs is irrelevant now. The point remains, though, that the Commodores cannot take anything for granted. The outcome of that game in Athens is motivation enough to keep the Dores concentrating until the final horn on Thursday.