ATLANTA, GA — Dennis Felton was careful how he answered the question. The Georgia coach certainly didn’t want to sound cocky and he wasn’t about to give the Florida Gators anything that could be used as bulletin board material, but there was a certain tone in his voice that resonated confidence Thursday evening after his Bulldogs advanced to the SEC Basketball Tournament quarterfinals.
Georgia got to the quarters with an impressive 80-65 win over Auburn in round one of the tournament, improving to 18-12 against a schedule that’s ranked among the best in the nation, but the Bulldogs lack a signature win outside the SEC and they finished the regular season 8-8. That’s an NIT resume, not an NCAA Tournament invitation so there is still work to be done.
One win might get the Bulldogs in the big dance and you figure two would do it for sure. The only problem is the Gators stand in the way and they took Georgia to school twice this season — 67-51 in Gainesville and 71-61 in Athens. Florida is ranked sixth in the nation and if last Sunday’s win over Kentucky is any indication, the Gators are stoked and ready to make a run at a repeat of their 2006 NCAA championship. Florida needs to go 3-0 in the SEC Tournament to wrap up a number one seed and favorable travel plans in the NCAA Tournament.
Georgia needs a win over Florida and even that might not get the Bulldogs in, but without the upset, there’s virtually no way they get invited to play with the big guys.
In Felton’s mind, a win over Florida will do it.
“I’m working to the point where yeah, in my mind, I think it would be a done deal if we managed to beat Florida,” said Felton.
He’s geared his team to believe that it’s a two-game season. Game one is out of the way, leaving the Gators as the only obstacle.
“We came here knowing that we could have the opportunity to make that kind of statement if we could manage to beat Auburn and get a chance at Florida,” said Felton. “You can’t ask for a better opportunity to make the kind of impression that we’re looking to make on the [NCAA selection] committee.”
Felton doesn’t have a particularly tall team, a real problem when you’re facing a Florida front line that features 6-11 Joakim Noah, 6-10 Al Horford and 6-9 Corey Brewer in the starting lineup with 6-9 Chris Richard and possibly 6-10 Marreese Speights coming off the bench.
Another problem is that Felton’s best player, Mike Mercer, is gone for the year after a season-ending knee injury. He didn’t need Mercer against Auburn. Terrence Woodberry and Billy Humphrey combined for 24 points, four assists, one blocked shot and six steals at Mercer’s position. Georgia’s other two guards, Sundiata Gaines (11 points, nine assists) and Levi Stukes (22 points, three rebounds, three assists, two steals) did their part, too, but going against Auburn’s smaller, athletic Tigers is not quite the same as matching up against the Gators and their balanced attack where all five starters average double figures.
Against Auburn, Georgia matched up with a 1-3-1 zone. Auburn had problems shooting over it (6-25 from the three-point stripe) and the zone prevented the Tigers from putting the ball on the floor and getting to the basket. Might the Bulldogs try that same zone to derail the Gators?
“I think Florida is so, so potent offensively that they’re a real challenge regardless of what defense you play,” said Felton. “But, at least they do have more typical big post players that we can match up to from the standpoint that they’re not going to be running around, shooting threes and beating us off the dribble when we try to take the three away so we’d match up a little more favorably in terms of the kind of players we have. I probably won’t go into that game thinking as prominently about zone as I did going into this game.”
But running a zone might make the most sense given Florida’s recent problems with the three ball. Coming into the Kentucky game, the Gators had hit only 28 of their last 104 three-pointers but against the Wildcats, Taurean Green went 3-4, Lee Humphrey went 3-7 and Walter Hodge came off the bench to hit all three of his three balls.
Does Georgia gamble that Florida will go back into its three-point shooting funk or will the Gators shoot it like they did in Athens (5-9)? If Georgia can use its quickness to get to the shooters behind the arc, the the Bulldogs could cause some problems with Florida’s three-point shooting but stretching the zone would leave Georgia starters 6-8 Takais Brown and 6-8 Dave Bliss to play Noah and Horford straight up in the blocks. Brown is very athletic but not so strong. Bliss is strong but he’s not very quick and he’s got very short arms, so he’s never going to be much of a rebounding threat. The Bulldogs bring 6-9 Steve Newman and 7-1 Rashaad Singleton off the bench. They both play decent defense but when they’re in the game, they are offensive liabilities (combined for four points against Auburn’s smaller Tigers).
From a standpoint of talent and experience, the Gators should be considered big favorites but Georgia made it clear that it doesn’t intend to back down.
“We’ve got to go out, take our time, be poised and not try to rush too many bad shots because they take advantage of the bad shots, and pretty much play our game, shoot the ball, get the ball inside, get some big fouls and hopefully we’ll come out with the win,” said Gaines.
Brown said the Bulldogs will have to play the perfect game to spring the upset. Felton said he won’t have to remind his team of the necessity to raise their standard of play.
“I don’t think anybody needs to be reminded or asked to play as well as they can play,” said Felton. “All those guys want to play as well as they can play individually and obviously we’d like to play as well as we can play as a team.”
He’s hoping his team plays with great confidence even though the Gators have won the last seven games against Georgia.
“They want to play well and they’ll be very, very motivated to play well,” said Felton.
GAME NOTES: It was against Georgia in late February last season that Noah put together his greatest offensive game ever for Florida with 37 points including 19-22 from the foul line … Florida is holding opponents to 30.2 percent shooting from the three-point arc … Humphrey needs 24 points to become the fifth Gator to reach 1,000 career points this season … The Gators lead the nation in field goal percentage (52.8 percent) while holding opponents to 41.2 percent.