If the Crimson Tide have quit on their coach and on this season, as some journalistic types may want everyone to believe, they sure did a poor job showing it this past Tuesday against the Auburn Tigers. Alabama played arguably their best half of the season in a spot where many teams would have folded, as they found themselves trailing at the half against their hated rivals on the road with a supposedly lame duck coach.
Meanwhile, the Georgia Bulldogs (16-9, 7-6 SEC) come limping into Tuscaloosa having lost back-to-back head-scratchers. As of just a week ago, the Dawgs had worked themselves into a consensus 7th seed in the NCAA Tournament with a strong resume full of solid wins and nearly no bad losses. However, things changed rather dramatically in the following few days, as Georgia lost twice at home to two of the worst teams in the SEC in Auburn and South Carolina. Coach Mark Fox's squad suddenly finds themselves trying to put the brakes on this current losing streak, as the Dawgs are free-falling down the projected brackets.
The Starting Five
- PG J.J. Frazier (10.3 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.2 SPG)
- SG Charles Mann (11.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 3.7 APG)
- 3G Kenny Gaines (11.6 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.0 BPG)
- PF Nemanja Djurisic (10.6 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.3 APG)
- C Marcus Thornton (12.4 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 0.9 APG, 0.9 SPG, 1.3 BPG)
If there is a single word that describes Georgia basketball, especially the starting five, it's solid. Which is why it has been so confusing to watch them struggle so much this past week against inferior competition. This is as balanced of an offensive attack as you will find in the SEC outside of Kentucky, as all five starters average double-digit scoring. At the point, the small (5'10), yet explosive Frazier has really made a big difference for a Georgia team that has lacked a true point guard in recent seasons. He is the best shooter on the team (43.1% FG%, 41.2% 3P%, 83.5% FT%), and his quickness is a dangerous weapon. He also rebounds very well for such a small guy. Mann is a solid guard who can play both off and on the ball well. He's a reliable scorer overall (41.0% FG%), but he's had his fair share of issues from deep (29.3% 3P%) and from the line (64.7% FT%) this year. His 5.5 RPG and 3.7 APG show how valuable he is, as most college players cannot both rebound and pass as well as Mann can. Both Mann and Frazier play good defense as well. Gaines has been the most assertive presence in the back court, both offensively and defensively. His shooting numbers are consistently good across the board (41.4% FG%, 34.7% 3P%, 77.3% FT%), and he's the best on-ball defender the Dawgs have. He is first on the team when it comes to making impact plays on defense.
In the post, Georgia relies on two seniors that have given Fox a lot of steady production over the years. Djurisic is the classic inside-out power forward, as he can score from around the rim (53.8% 2P%) and from outside (33.8% 3P%). Guys like Djurisic create all kinds of issues for defenses, and Alabama will have their work cut out for them. Djurisic also shoots 71.8% from the line and can both crash the boards for rebounds and handle the rock. Thornton has been Georgia's key this season, as he has finally lived up to the big-time hype he had when Fox brought him into the program four years ago. He's battled a good amount of injuries lately, but when he's on the court, the Bulldogs are a lot better off for it. A 49.3% scorer, Thornton leads the team in rebounds, blocks, and defensive rating (94.6). Jimmie Taylor and Michael Kessens will need to limit Thornton on Saturday if the Tide want to pull off the home upset.
- G Juwan Parker (5.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 0.9 APG)
- F Cameron Forte (3.2 PPG, 2.0 RPG,
- F Yante Maten (5.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.5 BPG)
- F Kenny Paul Geno (1.9 PPG, 1.6 RPG)
- G Taylor Echols (1.4 PPG, 0.7 RPG)
- F Houston Kessler (1.0 PPG, 1.1 RPG)
Georgia may or may not have a decent amount of depth on the team, depending on who all can even suit up for them Saturday. Parker, the 6th man and lone reliable guard off of the bench, has had a lingering achilles injury that has kept him out ever since their game against Florida way back on January 17th. A 40.3% shooter, Parker's absence has taken a toll on the Georgia back court for some time. Geno had missed about a month before returning to action in a limited role against South Carolina on Tuesday. Forte, in fact, actually got the start the other night, as Frazier was held out after suffering a concussion against Auburn. The Bulldogs have had players miss a total 21 games this season, which is some pretty bad luck on the injury front. Their depth has obviously been in flux because of that.
The Bulldogs have been able to count on having Forte and Maten give them quality minutes in the post, however. Forte scores well around the basket (60.0% 2P%), can play decent defense, and gives them some size inside (6'8). Maten, the young freshman with a ton of potential, hasn't been as consistent of a scorer (42.4% 2P%), but he does rebound and play defense (96.8 DRtg) even better than Forte does. Echols and Kessler are both guys who average a few minutes a game, but neither really make much of an impact regardless.
What To Watch For
- Injuries. This has become a regular theme here, but it's in no way any less significant. For Alabama, Ricky Tarrant remains doubtful for the game Saturday night, as he is still recovering from an apparent amputation or something. For Georgia, the gluttons of pain and fortitude, there is a nice long list that the team doctors will have to check off. Frazier needs to pass the concussion protocol, as he is still listed (as of this writing) as questionable for the game. Parker dressed out the other night for Georgia, but he didn't participate in warm-ups or play in the game. He's still questionable as well. Geno should be good to go after playing against South Carolina.
- An Offensive Revival? Early in the 2014-15 season, the Crimson Tide looked unrecognizable. Alabama was playing an exciting brand of offense, though it seemed to be a detriment to the defensive side. Grant made a clear effort to reverse that trend and get the guys back to playing his style of basketball, which worked for a period of time. That change, of course, eventually became stale and Alabama found itself in the same position as in years past: coming up short too many times down the stretch. However, Alabama looked like the early season version of itself the other night. There was good ball movement, players running the court, back-door cuts and screens, etc. The players seemed to really respond to this pace, as they had their best collective shooting night in quite some time. Did Grant decide to say, "screw it," and let the guys go at it offensively? Or was the performance against Auburn a one-time thing?
Three Keys to Victory
- Strong Individual Defense. If Frazier can go tomorrow night, Georgia has five different guys, who all play different positions, that can score. It's one of their main strengths. Thus, it's crucial that every player for Alabama can match-up with with the five of them individually: Retin Obasohan on Frazier, Levi Randolph on Mann, Rodney Cooper on Gaines, Shannon Hale on Djurisic, Taylor on Thornton, etc. Fortunately, looking at those match-ups reveals that the Tide have guys who can, in fact, measure up to the Dawgs and their balanced attack.
- Fouls and Free Throws. If both teams are missing their questionable players Saturday night, depth could become an issue if one of or both teams pick up early fouls. Consider the case where Frazier and Parker both sit: Georgia will only have two true guards who can really contribute in Mann and Gaines. If one of them gets into foul trouble, they will be severely limited in what they can do in the back court. Even if both Frazier and Parker can go, chances are that they won't be at 100%, and they might not be ready to jump back into playing their normal minutes. When it comes to the free throw line, Georgia is yet another SEC opponent Alabama should have a significant advantage against. The Dawgs are 201st in the country, shooting 68.4%.
- Make Sure the Shots Fall. Mark Fox puts a heavy emphasis on selling out on the boards. When he has good size, which he does, his team will always be a successful defensive rebounding team. Alabama is not a great rebounding team, especially not on the offensive side of the court. Chances are pretty good that Georgia will be grabbing a large majority of the Tide's missed shots. The best way to avoid that is simple: make the shots. Fox will probably run a 2-3 zone for nearly the entirety of the game, forcing Alabama to knock down long shots. Randolph and Cooper will be big in this game, as Levi has shown an adept ability at knocking down two point jumpers, and Cooper has been surprisingly effective from the three point line.
A win Saturday night isn't going to have guys like Joe Lunardi reaching for the eraser for his whiteboard (because you know he's got a huge bracket drawn up in his office), at least not for the good guys. However, provided that Georgia doesn't completely fall apart down the stretch, this would be a strong win for the Crimson Tide. A win against Georgia, followed by a 3-1 finish, could have the Tide within striking distance of the NCAA Tournament when they head to Nashville for the SEC Tournament. It's still a long-shot, but maybe this team has rallied around Anthony Grant. It sure did seem that way the other night.
The game will tip-off at 7:00 PM CST Saturday, and it will be televised on ESPN2.