The Crimson Tide basketball team will play its final game of the regular season on Saturday afternoon in Coleman Coliseum against the Georgia Bulldogs. Tip-off is set for 12:30 CST, with the game being televised regionally on the SEC Network and streamed world-wide on ESPN3.
The game will mark the final home appearances for seniors Senario Hillman, Chris Hines and Charvez Davis, but this isn't just any ole Senior Day. With a win, the Tide can move back within a half-game of Florida for the SEC lead, meaning that if Florida loses their tough finale on Saturday night at Vanderbilt's Memorial Fortress, Alabama would be crowned co-champions of the SEC for the 2011 season. Furthermore, a win over an NCAA Tournament-bound Georgia team would give Bama a much-needed third win of the season over a tournament-level team, which would keep the Tide's hopes for an at-large bid alive heading into next week's SEC Tournament.
A loss, meanwhile, would crush both of those hopes. Florida, who already assured themselves of at least a share of the SEC title by running past Alabama in the second half on Tuesday night, would have the title outright regardless of what they do at Vanderbilt. By losing three straight games to end the regular season, Bama would also have its "bubble popped", and would thus have no chance to return to the NCAA Tournament outside of winning the entire SEC Tournament.
It seems like Bama has been playing a lot of high stakes games lately--that's because we have. The Tide has found itself in a lot of high-pressure games the last few weeks, but none will be more high-pressure than this one. Georgia fans say they'd like to win this one because it will help their seeding in the SEC and NCAA Tournaments. That's nice and all, but Bama can potentially clinch its 8th SEC title in program history with a win, while a loss literally crushes all hopes for Bama's two big dreams we've been chasing all season: an SEC championship and an NCAA at-large berth. Really, although it would be nice to already have our spot in the NCAA Tournament locked up already, it's also refreshing to be playing games in March with SEC title and NCAA Tournament implications given our general college basketball irrelevance that last four years.
It probably goes without saying, but winning this high-stakes game with all the emotion of Senior Day piled on will be no easy task. Georgia is virtually a lock for the NCAA Tournament now, and they will be by far one of the two toughest teams that has visited Coleman Coliseum (the other being Kentucky), where the Tide are a perfect 15-0 this season.
Under second-year head coach Mark Fox, Georgia has been extremely solid this season, going 11-3 in non-conference play with wins over NCAA bubble teams UAB and Colorado, and the only losses coming in close fashion to NCAA Tournament locks Notre Dame, Temple and Xavier. Their solid play has continued throughout conference play, as they are now in a three-way tie for 2nd in the very competitive East Division with a 9-6 SEC record. Like their non-conference resume, all six of their conference losses have also come against NCAA Tournament-bound teams.
The only thing Georgia's resume is lacking is big wins. Like Alabama, their season resume includes only two wins against sure tournament teams (the same exact two teams as Alabama's, in fact). The difference however is that all of their losses are respectable. Their resume really says a lot about their team in general: they haven't been going around this season slaying the nation's elite teams or steamrolling people, but they've been remarkably consistent. Bama has to expect a battle against a team that doesn't allow anyone easy wins, but it's also a team that's not unbeatable when it faces good teams that play well. The key questions, then, are: how good really is this Alabama team, and how well will they play on Saturday afternoon?
Full Georgia roster breakdown and game analysis below the jump...
Any discussion about Georgia's roster has to begin with preseason SEC Player of the Year Trey Thompkins. The 6'10" junior forward has been fighting nagging injuries all season, and his numbers have suffered as a result, but he still leads the team in both scoring (15.8/game) and rebounding (7.5/game). The big news for this game, though, is that Thompkins has been listed as questionable due to a toe injury. It is a minor injury, and one that he could play through, but Fox probably wants his top player fully healthy for the NCAA Tournament in two weeks. Thompkins could very well still play, and either way we probably won't hear anything until right before tip-off. Whatever he and Fox decide, though, will have major implications for Saturday's game. Thompkins is easily one of the best players in the SEC when healthy.
Aside from Thompkins, the other big name for Georgia the last two years has been wing player Travis Leslie. The 6'4" junior has had more appearances on SportsCenter the last three years than Brett Favre, as his superhuman athleticism lands him on the top plays of the day segment on pretty much a weekly basis. This comparison was made last year when we previewed Georgia as well, but Leslie is basically a much bigger version of Senario Hillman. He isn't a good shooter, though he still attempts about 1 trey per game, but his mix of elite speed and hops combined with his 6'4" frame allows him to make all sorts of plays for the Bulldogs. He is second on the team in scoring (14.8/game) and second in rebounding (7.1/game)--very impressive for a 6'4" player. He also has a very high assist rate (3.0/game) and also leads the team in steals.
The biggest difference in Mark Fox's first Georgia team last season that finished with the second-worst record in the SEC, and this year's squad that is bound for March Madness has been the addition of dynamic 6'1" junior guard Gerald Robinson. Robinson transferred from Tennessee State after leading that team in every major stat category, and since arriving in Athens has provided the Dawgs exactly what they were missing last year: a big-time perimeter scorer (too bad he didn't transfer to UA). Robinson is third on the team in scoring (12.6/game), and also leads the team in assists (3.9/game). He is a very good all-around guard, having the capability to shoot (1.0 made treys/game), drive and score, or drive and dish.
The addition of Robinson has been a boost to his fellow backcourt mate in the starting lineup, 5'11" junior point guard Dustin Ware. Ware averages 8.2 points/game and is a close second to Robinson in assists with 3.8/game. Ware is also the team's top shooting threat, averaging nearly two makes per game from the arc while shooting a very impressive 44% from that range.
The final piece of Georgia's typical starting lineup is 6'8" senior forward Jeremy Price. Price is your prototypical college power forward, averaging 9.5 points/game and 5.0 rebounds/game. He's not a special talent, but he's solid and has loads of experience in the league.
Typically, another 6'8" senior forward, Chris Barnes, would come off the bench as the team's sixth man to split time with Price. However, given the "questionable" tag on Thompkins, he could make an appearance in the starting lineup, or at least see extended minutes, on Saturday. Like Price, Barnes isn't anything special, but he has the requisite size and experience to be a capable fill-in.
6'9" freshman Donte' Williams sees a few minutes each game off the bench to provide depth in the post, but could also see extended action on Saturday if Thompkins can't go. Versatile 6'7" freshman forward Marcus Thornton, a player Grant recruited heavily, also sees action off the bench.
6'2" sophomore guard Sherrard Brantley is the first guard off the bench, where he averages 3.4 points/game primarily as a pure 3-point shooting specialist. He averages right at one make from the arc each game, but has only made 6 shots inside the arc all season.
Looking at this Georgia roster and the roles of each player, it's remarkable how similar they are to Alabama, with one exception. Essentially, Ware at point guard, Leslie at wing and Thompkins in the post play nearly identical roles to Releford, Mitchell and Green, respectively, for Alabama. Furthermore, they rely heavily on a senior banger in the post in Price and a 3-point specialist at guard in Brantley, like Alabama does with Hines and Davis. The big difference for Georgia, and you could probably argue the difference in the two teams' ability to avoid let-downs this season, has been Georgia's addition of Robinson, giving them that extra perimeter scorer that Alabama simply does not have.
It isn't just Robinson that has improved Georgia's fortunes this season, though, or led to their impressive consistency. Like Grant, Fox has vastly improved the defensive prowess of a team that struggled on that end of the floor under its previous coaching staff. The 'Dawgs are now 39th in the nation in overall defensive efficiency, good for 3rd in the SEC behind only Alabama and Kentucky. They don't create a lot of turnovers, but they rank near the very top of the nation in preventing assists and allowing scoring inside the arc. That has to be a huge concern for the Tide heading into this one, as no team in all of college basketball relies more on scoring inside the arc than Alabama.
Georgia's defense will be extremely tough for Bama to crack, something only very good offensive teams have done this season. Of Georgia's nine losses, seven came against offenses ranked in the top 30 in overall efficiency. The other two came against offenses ranked 62nd and 75th in that category. Alabama's offense ranks 150th. Alabama will have to be able to execute on the offensive end and make some shots, both outside and inside, to score enough to win.
Georgia's offense ranks 84th in the nation in overall efficiency, about average for an SEC team. They have players capable of scoring both inside and outside, but if Thompkins has to sit out, it could really put a lot of pressure on Georgia's perimeter players to pick up the scoring slack against Bama's 9th-ranked defense. Georgia ranks below average nationally in free throw rate and in allowing steals, two factors that could help Bama tremendously.
Georgia is capable on offense, and their defense has been very good this year. Bama needs to play well on both ends in this game--something we haven't done in our last few games. If Bama can put together a great all-around performance, though, finding a way to beat Georgia at home in front of yet another packed house of 15,000+ Bama fans is a strong possibility. Specifically, it would be really nice to see Bama's three seniors step up and make the most of their final appearance at Coleman Coliseum. If they and their teammates can do that, Tide players and fans will be on the edge of their seats to see what transpires in Nashville on Saturday night, in Atlanta next week, and in Indianapolis next Sunday.
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