January 6, 2012

Dawgs open SEC play

The SEC opener isn't exactly the time to go about re-inventing yourself as a basketball team.

Unfortunately for Georgia, with the recent loss of leading rebounder Marcus Thornton, that's exactly what the Bulldogs (9-5) will be doing when they open conference play Saturday at Stegeman Coliseum (Fox Sports South, 7 p.m.) against Alabama.

It's certainly altered the identity with which he had hoped his Bulldogs would play.

"We've had to change it, with the loss of Marcus; I'll be honest with you," head coach Mark Fox said Friday before practice. "He was our most physical player, our leading rebounder, so we've had to change our rotation and can't quite play the same way. He gave us some advantages that we don't have now, so we've had to change plans."

One obvious change has been the insertion of true freshman Nemanja Djurisic into the starting lineup against Winthrop, a game which saw him score a season-high 17 points and pull down nine boards.

But that hasn't been all.

"Marcus was also playing the three so Connor has taken his place and is backing up Kentavious (Caldwell-Pope) so that's taken away another power forward from us," Fox said. "We've had to kind of re-invent some things and get some of these younger big guys to play more than one position which as Dean Smith would tell you is not the thing to do. But we've got to have guys play more than one spot."

For a team that's struggled all year rebounding the basketball, that's not a good thing.

The Bulldogs come into play at the bottom of the conference standings in rebounding, and that was with Thornton playing in the majority of the team's 14 non-conference games.

"It's still an area of concern that we're the most worried about right now," sophomore forward Donte Williams said. "We think we can improve. I know the last couple of games we've done a better job with (opponents') field goal percentage. If we can keep that to 39 percent, get that down, it will work better for us."

Fox dismissed the notion of going with a smaller lineup until Thornton gets back, which at this point remains a question mark, although he is not expected to miss the entire season.

"If we went small all the time, it puts you at such a disadvantage rebounding and we're small in the backcourt to begin with. We've got to play very intelligent basketball. If you look at our turnovers for instance, we've had some success taking care of the basketball as of late and that's critical to our success," Fox said. "The issue inside is they're young, they're young physically and they're young in experience. They're not finishing as many plays at this point as we'd like them to, but I will say in the last two days we've finished more post plays than we have the entire year, so we're getting better. But we'll have to continue playing very smart, our perimeter play has been very good and we need to get those perimeter guys the right shots at the right times."

The Bulldogs will need as many shots to fall against the Crimson Tide (11-3) to fall as they can.

Alabama returns two of the league's more dynamic players in 6-foot-8 forward JaMychal Green and 6-6 forward Tony Mitchell, who are averaging 15.3 and 15.1 points respectively for head coach Anthony Grant's squad.

Caldwell-Pope tops Georgia with 14.1 points followed by Gerald Robinson Jr. at 13.8.

Fox hopes his team's strong non-conference schedule will have his team ready for the challenge of the physical Crimson Tide.

"We've played some good teams in our non-league, I think the strength of our non-league schedule has helped us get ready for league play. It's a little different lineup as I said without Marcus, but as I said, our non-league schedule has helped us prepare for Alabama," Fox said. "Their best players (Green and Mitchell) came back, that's the bottom line and that's why they're off to a great start. I've got a lot of respect for how they're playing.

NOTES: Saturday's game will be the first time during the Fox era that Georgia has opened SEC play against a school other than Kentucky. His first Bulldog team lost in Lexington and last year's squad opened its league schedule with a 77-70 win over the Wildcats. … Coinciding with Georgia's current 5-game win streak has been the play of senior guard Dustin Ware. His assignment to the bench ended a streak of 87 collegiate starts but started the Dogs' win streak. Since then, he's averaged 13.2 points (his career avg. is 7.9 ppg), shooting 63 percent from 3-point range (15x24). Ware is on track to become just the 7th player in UGA history to hand out at least 350 assists and score 1,000 points in a career.