...While we were marching through Georgia.
So now it comes down to it. How will Kentucky respond to a bad loss at home to a determined Vanderbilt team? Marching down to face Dennis Felton's Georgia Bulldogs in Athens at 7:00pm on Wednesday may not be the medicine the doctor ordered, but march we must. Will it be reminiscent of Sherman, or more like the fate of George Armstrong Custer?
There can be no doubt that a win in Georgia would soothe the savage breast of the Big Blue Nation somewhat after being rudely roused from our gentle winter slumber of success by the discordant sound of string music played by our Nashville neighbors in Rupp Arena. Nonetheless, there are no cupcakes left for supper, and a strict diet of red meat will be our fare from now until the end of the season. Georgia isn't the 5-pound belly-buster that Florida is this year, but make no mistake - this Bulldog team is a full meal, and if we don't come hungry, we will likely leave unsatisfied.
Georgia by the numbers
Georgia was reckoned to be a sleeper team in the SEC this year, returning the experienced starting backcourt of junior Sundiata Gaines (6'1"/200#/9p/6r/5a) and senor Levi Stukes (6'2"/200#/13p/2r/2a). They have played well enough to change the reckoning from sleeper to genuine threat. Gaines is an excellent all-around, do-everything combo guard who can penetrate, shoot, pass and rebound, shooting 48% from 3-point range. Stukes is no-nonsense scorer who can hurt teams with his multi-dimensional offensive game - 48% from 3-point range and 89% from the line. Sophomore Mike Mercer (6'4"/185#/15p/4r/3a) joins Gaines and Stukes in Georgia's 3-guard starting lineup. Mercer had a solid freshman year, and has taken over the scoring leadership of the team. Mercer is a talented slasher but not a good 3-point shooter at only 27%.
The Bulldog's front court consists of forward Takais Brown (6'8"/245#/14p/5r) and center Dave Bliss (6'10"/255/4p/4r). Brown is a JUCO transfer from Southeastern Illinois, and broke into the starting lineup at the very end of December. Brown his a highly touted player who brings a serious low-post threat to the Bulldogs. Dave Bliss a solid if unspectacular center who takes up space in the lane and rebounds the ball reasonably well. He also took over his starting spot late in December from sophomore Rashaad Singleton (7'/250#/4p/3r).
Georgia's reserves are an excellent bunch, beginning with senior forward Steve Newman, who can shoot the ball with range (47% from 3). True freshman Albert Jackson is a load inside at 6'10"/250#, who can post up and get rebounds. Rashaad Singleton, mentioned before, was a former starter and the tallest man on the team at 7 feet, and leading in blocked shots with 2/game. In the back court, sophomore Terrance Woodbury is a 6'6" swing player who is the 6th leading scorer on the team and shoots 39% from 3, and sophomore guard Billy Humphrey, the 5th leading scorer and 44% from 3 round out the major reserves. Georgia plays 10 players double-digit minutes, so this team is deep as well as talented.
Teamwise, the 'Dawgs like to keep the tempo a bit faster than Kentucky, clocking in at 62nd overall versus UK's 123rd. Offensively, the Bulldogs have a lot of options and a lot of help. Their offense is similar in efficiency to the Wildcats, 38th and 40th, respectively. The Dawgs are one of the best 3-point shooting teams we have faced, 11th nationally at 42%, compared to UK's 36% (126th). UK is better from 2 than the Bulldogs, 54% vs. 52%, and a slightly better free throw shooting team, 68% vs. 65%. Georgia does turn the ball over more often than the Wildcats, which seems strange considering our struggles in that area.
Defensively, the 'Cats are significantly more efficient at 15th vs. the Dawgs 27th, and in effective FG% defense, UK is much better (9th vs 83rd). Georgia doesn't defend the 2 or the 3 as well as the Wildcats, but they block more shots and get many more steals. Georgia and UK attempt about the same number of 3 point shots per field goal attempt.
What it all means
Statistically, Kentucky is the better team, but not by a lot. Dennis Felton is an outstanding coach who has had very good success against Tubby Smith, unlike most coaches in the SEC. Georgia is a veteran team with a strong bench who defends like crazy and can shoot lights-out from long range. If Smith cannot find a way to convince the Wildcats to do a better job against the pressure defense and guarding the three, this could be a very long night.
We do match up fairly well against the Bulldogs, which is always a plus. We have bigger guards and more talented players overall than they do, and we are comparable teams with similar offensive and defensive philosophies. Smith tends to zone a bit more than Felton, and Felton tends to extend his man-to-man defense more than Smith does. But overall, we have two evenly matched teams in terms of size and style. UK has better talent but tends to play to the level of its opposition. Georgia is less skilled, but their players have completely bought in to Felton's system. Sadly, the same cannot be said with confidence about our players.
Our 3-point defense was badly abused by the Commodores, and Georgia shoots the three even better Vanderbilt does. Fortunately for us, most of the Bulldogs' 3-point shots come from their guards, whereas Vanderbilt's comes mostly from their forwards, who are extremely mobile and athletic. We have a bigger backcourt than Georgia, so that would appear to work in our favor. But one thing that Georgia does well that Vandy doesn't is take the ball into the lane, and they have lots of big bodies to throw at our front line. That gives the 'Dawgs a whole different dimension, and the possibility of penetration and kick or entry and kick is much higher with Georgia, and a weakness of the ball-line.
Georgia has played a much tougher schedule than Kentucky in recent weeks, playing 5 teams in the top 25 since mid-December, and beating one of them. The loss to Alabama on the road was so tough (and frankly controversial) that I am inclined to give them the same benefit as a win for that game. The toughness of that loss will also translate into some very angry and motivated Bulldogs, but our recent home loss to a team we had no business loosing to probably evens that factor out.
Look for Georgia to man up on Morris unless he gets hot. Felton doesn't like to double team and prefers not to zone, but he will if Morris starts to own the paint. Kentucky must be patient against Georgia and get into the lane. If we don't get to the foul line any more often than against Vanderbilt, our chances of victory will diminish greatly. Kentucky is not a great 3-point shooting team, but our guards must drive the ball and kick to the wing or dish to Morris if we are to regain our offensive efficiency. Crawford and Bradley must not only move the ball around, but move without it. Morris must demand the basketball and post up stronger than against the 'Dores. We need rebounding from Thomas and Perry and Stevenson, and more production from Jasper and Meeks. Above all, we must defend the three point line.
Bottom line - this is a tough, dangerous opponent who is playing at home with a chip on their shoulder. Fortunately, given Georgia's recent success, there is no way the 'Cats are going to go in cocky against this team like they did against Vanderbilt. Beating Georgia at home will require the best game the Wildcats have played to date. This, my friends and neighbors, is where the rubber truly meets the road. A win here, and Kentucky is on its way. A loss, and days of darkness, doubt and recriminations are likely to follow. The stakes are high for the BBN and confidence in this team, but the odds of victory are no better than even. I don't agree with Matt Jones' rather hyperbolic take that this 11-game stretch will define the UK basketball team for the next several years, but it is obviously important for this year.
Hold on to your butts...