Tide travels to Georgia for SEC opener

The Crimson Tide basketball team will open SEC play tomorrow night on the road against the Georgia Bulldogs. Tip off is set for 6:00 pm CST at Georgia's Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, with the game being televised regionally on FSN.

Obviously, both teams are 0-0 in conference play, but Bama has had the better results in non-conference play. The Tide is 11-3 with wins over two projected tournament teams (Wichita State and Purdue) as well as top-100 teams VCU and Oklahoma State and major-conference foes Maryland and Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs are 9-5, but haven't beaten any projected tournament teams thus far. They do have wins over good mid-major teams in South Dakota State and Mercer, and they also took out major-conference foes Notre Dame and USC. However, the Dawgs have dropped contests to weak major-conference teams Colorado and Georgia Tech, were blown out by Cal, and also dropped games to Xavier and Cincinnati. They also needed overtime recently to beat a bad Winthrop team.

With these results in hand, Georgia is not expected to make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament this year. However, they have proven capable of beating some strong teams and are expected to finish somewhere near the middle of the pack in the league this season. The Bulldogs are not especially efficient on either end of the court, ranking 8th in the SEC in offensive efficiency and 9th in defensive efficiency--just below 100th nationally in both categories--but they certainly aren't terrible on either end. Most importantly, the Dawgs will have the all-important home-court advantage on their side, though hopefully Georgia's slow start in non-conference play and the fact that classes have yet to begin in Athens will make this a smaller, quieter crowd.

Georgia has two star players that Bama will need to key in on. The leading scorer is actually dynamite true freshman wing player Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. He leads the team in points (14.1/game) and steals (1.6/game) and is also a very good rebounder for a perimeter player (5.1/game). What makes Caldwell-Pope so good is that he has a great mix of size, athleticism, and shooting. He is quick enough to lead the team in steals, physical enough to average over 5 boards/game from the perimeter, and yet the majority of his shots come from the 3-point arc, where he shoots over 30% while averaging more than two made treys each game.

The Dawgs have another big-time scorer on the perimeter in 6'1" senior guard Gerald Robinson. Robinson was the team's third option (behind NBA draftees Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie) last season during their run to the NCAA Tournament. This year, he's just behind Caldwell-Pope in scoring with 13.8 points/game, though he actually averages higher points/minute played. He shoots a very high percentage (over 37%) from the arc, but usually only takes about two attempts each game. His game is more designed around making plays off the dribble, which combined with his passing skills allow him to lead the team with 3.3 assists/game.

The third option on this year's team is veteran guard Dustin Ware, a 5'11" senior guard who has seemingly been in the UGA starting lineup since the Clinton Administration. That's an exaggeration, of course, but he actually has been a Georgia starter since the Bush Administration, as this will be his fourth consecutive year starting. While he has loads of experience, he's probably had the quietest career of any four-year starter in memory, averaging between 7.2-8.2 points in each of his three previous seasons, never being more than the team's third offensive option. This season he's averaging 8.9 points/game, with the majority of his points coming from the 3-point line. He is a very good shooter when left open, but isn't great at creating his own shot. Other perimeter players in the rotation are 6'0" junior Vincent Williams, 6'2" junior Sherrard Brantley, and 6'7" senior Connor Nolte.

The Dawgs have a very good mix of shooting, scoring, talent, and experience in their backcourt with those three guards, but they are a bit more unsettled inside. The only post player who averages more than 20 minutes/game is 6'9" sophomore Donte Williams, who barely played a role at all on last year's NCAA Tournament team. He averages 7.2 points/game and 5.4 rebounds/game. The next option is 6'8" Nemanja Djurisic, a freshman from Montenegro who plays the typical European big-man game with a decent outside shot. 7'0" center John Florveus, a JuCo transfer, and 6'7" sophomore forward Marcus Thornton provide depth inside.

On paper, Alabama should be the better team, and the Tide's offensive strength in the paint and defensive strength on the perimeter would seem to match up well with the Dawgs' offensive strength on the perimeter and defensive weakness in the interior. However, as is always the case in college basketball, playing teams on the road in conference play, even weaker teams, is always very dangerous. This is especially the case for a team that relies on 3-point shooting as much as Georgia does. Like Dayton, another inferior team the Tide faced on the road this season, a team that shoots a lot of 3's is a threat to get hot, especially if there are defensive breakdowns that lead to open looks, and these teams can play well over their heads at home when shots start falling. Alabama needs to play as disciplined as possible on the defensive end to contain and frustrate Caldwell-Pope, Robinson, and the other UGA perimeter scorers. Further, Bama needs its star players, particularly JaMychal Green if he is indeed healthy, to play a solid game offensively to prevent the kinds of scoring droughts that lead to big runs for the home team. The Tide should be able to exploit mismatches with Green inside, and if Releford continues his improved play from the last few games and the offense continues to utilize the backdoor cuts that were so effective against Georgia Tech, Bama should come home from Athens with another nice road. Hope for the best.

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