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Alabama @ Georgia: Game Preview

The Crimson Tide basketball team will return to action this afternoon after a week off as they travel to Athens to take on the Georgia Bulldogs. The teams have had very similar seasons and are looking to jump-start a run to a possible NIT bid.

Tip-off is set for 3 p.m. Alabama (Central) time and 4 p.m. local (Eastern) time. Fans in the Atlanta area should take advantage of this great chance to see the Tide play and can buy tickets here to minimize the UGA home court advantage. The game will be televised throughout the Southeast by the SEC Network. Those outside the region can watch the game online at ESPN360.

Alabama is entering its final three weeks of the season with a 14-11 overall record and a 4-7 record in SEC play. Despite a series of disappointing losses, the Tide has a very real shot at landing the #3 seed in the West for the upcoming SEC tournament in addition to a shot at earning a valuable invite to postseason play in the form of an NIT berth.

As for the West standings, things are very fluid, with only one game separating each of the first five spots. The Tide is in 4th place, one game ahead of Auburn, one game behind Ole Miss, two behind Mississippi State, and three behind West leaders Arkansas. As for a possible NIT berth, seven or eight total SEC wins (including the tournament) along with a top-80 RPI ranking would probably do the trick given recent history. This means Bama needs at least 3-4 more wins and needs to move up 20 spots or so in the RPI. Both are possible given the Tide's upcoming schedule, but we must win the "toss-up" games, starting with today's matchup in Athens.

Speaking of the Bulldogs, they are in a very similar boat. Like Alabama, Georgia is rebuilding this season under a first-year coach, Mark Fox, who had a tremendous amount of success at the mid-major level. Like Alabama, they have been a very tough team to beat despite a new staff and a lack of overall talent and depth. And like Bama, they have been extremely competitive, even against the league's top teams, but due to an inability to pull out close games, their record doesn't show it. The Dawgs are 11-13 overall and 3-8 in SEC play. Other than a couple of years earlier this decade (for which the program was later placed on probation), Georgia has been one of the conference's weakest programs over the last several years. Many UGA fans think they have the potential to tap into the local talent hotbed and get things turned around with the new coaching staff, which includes former Bama player, assistant coach, and interim head coach Philip Pearson. Although neither team is a threat to make the Dance, both first-year coaches would love to extend their rebuilding seasons with an NIT invite, and today's game will be a huge step in that direction for the winner.

Read below the jump for more on the Georgia Bulldogs and the keys to an Alabama victory...

The Bulldogs are led by one of the SEC's most productive players, sophomore forward Trey Thompkins. He is coming off a monster 25-point, 10-rebound performance in the Dawgs' loss on Wednesday at Tennessee. On the season he is leading the team in both points (17.2 per game) and rebounds (7.7 per game). At 6'10" and nearly 250 pounds, Thompkins will be a handful for the Tide post players around the rim, but he is also a threat to shoot from the perimeter, which makes him even more dangerous. He has nearly one made 3-pointer per game this season while shooting an impressive 43% from the arc, so he is certainly capable of drawing Bama's big guys outside. Still, he is most dangerous around the rim and is taller and heavier than anyone on the Tide roster, so containing his damage is a huge key to stopping the Bulldogs.

Thompkins is usually joined in the starting lineup down low by senior center Albert Jackson, but Jackson was arrested last week and was suspended for one game. He is expected to play against Alabama but may not start. At any rate, his backup, junior Jeremy Price, has been more productive offensively all season long. Price averages 6.9 points and 4.3 rebounds on the season, so he is a solid player who is used to playing a lot of minutes. Jackson only averages 3.5 points and 3.7 rebounds, but his real value is on the defensive end, where he leads the team in blocks and at 6'11" could really cause problems for the Bama offense. Expect the two players to split time alongside Thompkins in this one. Junior forward Chris Barnes and sophomore forward Drazen Zlovaric provide depth for the Bulldogs in the frontcourt.

The Dawgs' top playmaker on the perimeter is sophomore guard Travis Leslie, who occupies the wing position in the starting lineup. The best way to describe Leslie is a bigger version of Senario Hillman. The two are probably the best pure athletes in the SEC, and Leslie has spent plenty of time this season on the SportsCenter highlight reels with his spectacular dunks. Although Leslie has many of the same skill limitations as Hillman (he only has four made 3's on the year) his 6'4" frame allows him to do things around the rim that Hillman can't do as consistently. Leslie is second on the team in points (14.5 per game), assists (2.6 per game), and rebounds (7.0 per game)--pretty impressive for a guard. The biggest key to stopping Leslie is to keep him from getting to the rim, both in transition and in halfcourt sets.

The starter at point guard is sophomore Dustin Ware. He won't be on any All-SEC lists, but he is a capable point guard. He leads the team with 3.0 assists per game and contributes 8.3 points each outing. He isn't an excellent 3-point shooter but he is good enough to keep defenders honest, making just over one per game while shooting 35% from beyond the arc. The starter at shooting guard is senior Ricky McPhee, who is the team's best 3-point shooter, making just over two per game while hitting 38% from long-range. He also leads the team in minutes, so the coaches obviously think his shooting is an important facet of their offense. Hopefully we can do as good a job defending him as we did with Arkansas sharpshooter Rotnei Clarke in the second half of our last game. Redshirt freshman Ebuka Anyaorah and freshman Vincent Williams provide depth in the Bulldogs backcourt but neither is a huge threat offensively.

The similarities between the two teams in this matchup aren't just limited to their new coaching staffs and results on the year. Like Bama, Georgia relies very heavily on two playmakers--one inside and one outside--to make things go for them offensively. I'm not sure that we have the manpower to shut down Thompkins, but I think if we can contain Leslie on the perimeter the way we've seen some teams do with Mikhail Torrance, we will have a very good shot to pick up a road win. We've seen what happens to us without Torrance producing, and the same can happen to Georgia if Leslie is stopped. In short, Georgia can be had, even on the road, if we keep their two studs from running loose. Do that, and we will get exactly the kind of low-scoring game we want to keep the crowd as silent as possible and give us a great chance at a road win.

This game probably didn't seem very important for those glancing at the schedule a month ago, but with time running out on the season and opportunities still out there for this young team, this game will be huge in determining our fate for the SEC tournament and our postseason hopes. Roll Tide!