With a pair of wins over the dredge of the conference last week, Alabama ran its record to 16-10 (9-5 SEC) and set the stage for what could possibly be a final run at the 2017 NCAA Tournament. It won’t be easy, as each of Alabama’s final four opponents boasts particular strengths and solid overall play.
Up first is the final rematch of the regular season, as the Georgia Bulldogs (15-12, 6-8 SEC) make the trip to Tuscaloosa. Mark Fox’s team has been the most depressing bunch in the SEC, as they’ve continued to rack up heart-breaking loss after another. To add injury to insult, they will now also be without star power forward Yante Maten, who injured his knee in the Dawg’s 82-77 loss to Kentucky on Saturday, for the rest of the season.
The Last Meeting
Three Keys to Victory
Limit Maten’s Offense. As alluded to in the above section, containing Maten will be a massive undertaking from someone. It may require a group effort, such as a 2-3 zone or a double-down from the perimeter. However Alabama decides to approach it, it is essential that the Tide contain Maten, as Georgia really does go as he goes. He can hurt opponents in so may different ways, and his inside-out ability opens up shots on the perimeter and lanes in the paint. Heck, Georgia lost to Florida a few weeks ago almost exclusively because Maten fouled out late in the game. Which brings me to Key #2...
Put Georgia in the Doghouse. Pardon the pun, but Alabama needs to get the Dawgs into foul trouble if they want to steal a big road win in Athens. Georgia relies heavily on their main guys, as Frazier and Maten both log over 30 MPG, and Parker is just shy of that at 27.6 MPG. Frazier and Maten must have some of the highest +/- ratings (the difference in points scored while the player is on the court) in the SEC. Alabama needs to apply pressure offensively and try to draw some fouls.
Don’t Get Destroyed at the Line. If Alabama can successfully get the Dawgs in foul trouble, that implies that they will spend some time at the free throw line. As anyone who follows ‘Bama hoops knows, the Tide are absolutely atrocious at the charity stripe (62.3%, 341st in the country). It’s pretty embarrassing really. Meanwhile, Georgia is shooting 74.3% from the line. If Alabama gets outscored from the line by 15+ points again like they did in Auburn on Saturday, they will lose this game handily.
Alabama dominated pretty much every facet of the first match-up with Georgia. The Tide out-rebounded the Bulldogs 40-27, totally shut down their star guard J.J. Frazier (4 points on 2/9 shooting and only 3 assists), and shot 51.1% overall and 9/15 from three-point land, compared to Georgia’s 38.2% and 4/16, respectively. They held up enough at the free throw line to keep it about even percentage-wise (Bama: 23/34, UGA: 14/19), and got to the charity stripe early and often.
Maten absolutely destroyed Alabama though, putting the Bulldogs on his back to the tune of 20 points, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 3 steals. Clearly, Alabama had no answer for him on the defensive end, and Maten forced nearly half of the Tide’s 16 turnovers himself. He just didn’t get any help from anyone else, and with Braxton Key having the career night that he had (26 points on 7/11 shooting, which included 3/4 from downtown and 9/13 from the line) and three other ‘Bama players in double-figures scoring, Georgia simply couldn’t keep pace with Alabama.
What to Watch For This Time
The most obvious difference for Georgia this time around is that Maten won’t be out on the floor to shoulder the load again. If the Dawgs struggled to get to 60 points in Athens with Maten, where will they go when they need a basket in Tuscaloosa against this stingy defense? Well, Frazier is the obvious answer. He may have struggled against ‘Bama in the first meeting, but the senior point guard dropped 36 points in 35 minutes of play against the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday. The guy can ball.
He will need help though. Georgia’s issues all year have stemmed from lack of production from ‘the other guys’. Juwan Parker and Jordan Harris are capable guards, but the front-court is going to sorely miss Maten. Derek Ogbeide will really have his hands full battling on the boards with the likes of Bola Olaniyan, Donta Hall, and Jimmie Taylor. If Alabama out-rebounded Georgia by 13 last time, there’s no reason they shouldn’t have a +10 margin again on Thursday night.
With all of that being said, it’s important to keep in mind that the previous meeting between these two teams couldn’t have gone any better for Alabama. It’s unlikely that the Tide will win by 20 points again, even with the game being in Tuscaloosa and Maten not dressing out. Georgia is a talented team with a strong defense of their own (33rd in Kenpom’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency), and they have been on the verge of breaking out all season.
Of course, losing as many heartbreakers as Georgia has this season eventually wears on a team’s psyche, especially when their best player is no longer there to bail them out when they need him too. This is a very winnable game for the Crimson Tide, and it would be very difficult for ‘Bama to make a run at the NCAA Tournament if they drop this one at home. Needless to say, Alabama needs to take care of business Thursday night.
The game will tip-off on ESPN2 at 6:00 PM CST.