Ahead of the MSU-Georgia game on Friday afternoon, we did some questioning of our sister site Dawg Sports. Check 'em out for all things Georgia.
The Only Colors: It appears Georgia has made a major jump from a few years back when Detroit Piston Kentavious Caldwell-Pope played for the Bulldogs. What's been the key to the improvement?
Mr. Sanchez, Dawg Sports: Improved depth and experience. That team two years ago was KCP, and a bunch of kids or not quite high major players. Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines have gone from freshman on limited minutes to solid starters. Marcus Thornton has finally gotten healthy after a litany of injuries to become a quality post player. Nemi Djurisic has improved and we've added good rotation pieces in these last two classes with guys like JJ Frazier, Yante Maten, Cameron Forte, Juwan Parker, and Kenny Paul Geno. Caldwell-Pope was an amazing top player, but this team has seen a vast improvement in it's 2nd through 7th, 8th, 9th best players since then.
TOC: What's the status of Kenny Gaines? If he's out or limited, how will that affect the Bulldogs?
DS: He'll play. How limited he'll be remains to be seen, but he'll play. He'd have played in the SEC Tournament semifinals against Arkansas if it mattered (which once we locked up our bid by beating South Carolina, and with Kentucky looming in the finals, it kind of didn't), but he was quoted after that game as saying he'd have played if it was an NCAA game.
As for impact, it'll be big. This team has little margin for error, and has shown that when it's close complete (though it will be without SF Juwan Parker as he reaggravated an achilles injury that has taken him out of the second half of this season), that it can compete with just about anyone. But if you take one of their main 5 or 6 guys out of the mix, they look barely NIT worthy. So Gaines needs to be healthy enough to give us his usual strong defense and outside shooting, or else it'll be a long, ugly day for the Dawgs.
TOC: Just six guys for Georgia have played more than 40% of available minutes, yet eleven guys have played more than 10% of minutes. Has coach Mark Fox settled in on a particular rotation?
DS: Not really, because injuries have forced that on him. As said above, Parker came into the year as the starting SF but was lost midway through the season. Current starting SF Kenny Paul Geno missed two months with a broken wrist. Marcus Thornton, Yante Maten, and JJ Frazier have all missed time with concussions, and now Gaines is suffering from the foot injury. That has forced guys like Cameron Forte to step up and produce, and he's done an excellent job off the bench as a rim crashing SF over the last month. Or walk-on Taylor Echols who spent about two months as our only perimeter option off the bench when both Parker and Geno were out. This Friday could see one of the healthier mixes Fox has had to choose from in a while, and with the extended breaks in the NCAA Tourney, that may allow him to tighten up the rotation, but we shall see.
TOC: Georgia is a top-10 team in the nation in getting to the line, sitting at #7 in the nation in terms of Free Throw Rate. Is that a schematic thing, or is it due to the individual efforts of Charles Mann, Marcus Thornton and J.J. Frazier?
DS: Little from column A, little from column B. It's become schematic because Fox has adapted his offense to what his players do best. Thornton is powerful old man (5th yr senior thanks to a redshirt year due to knee issues), and he's smart around the rim so he does a good job getting to the line. Djurisic has a bit of an unorthodox game which helps draw fouls with his post moves and dribble drives on opposing bigs. Gaines and JJ Frazier are good penetrators, and Gaines has the athleticism to finish strong so we have a bevy of players who do well getting to the line. But then there's Mann, and he's on another level. He gets wild, which can lead to turnovers and some very poor finishes in the paint, but I've never seen anyone draw contact like he can. He changes pace well with his dribble getting defenders on his hip with ease. He's 6'4, wide shoulders, so he can bully Gs and hold his own around bigs. He flails awkwardly which helps draw the refs eyes. If he was a better FT shooter, he'd get an extra 2-3 pts per game. So I'd say how the refs call this game will be a big influence on what we see Friday. If they call it tight, Georgia will get to the double bonus quickly, and Spartan Gs will be in foul trouble. If they call it loose, then Mann's attempt for fouls becomes sloppy turnovers and he'll struggle.
TOC: The Bulldogs feature no rotational players above the height of 6'8. Have rebounding, interior defense, and post defense presented issues for Georgia so far this year? Also, should MSU be worried about any of those big guys from deep?
DS: Nemi averages 1 made 3 per game, and he's got a good handle for a PF so he will need to be defended all the way out to the 3 pt line. Thornton has also shown a willingness to take and ability to hit an open deep ball if left alone. And it was that sort of spread the floor style that helped them take a late lead against Kentucky back in February.
But no, the height hasn't caused much issues, because aside from Kentucky, who has the length to exploit it? There just aren't many good college big men anymore 6'10+. You'll find some here and there, but even those tend to be slimmer, kids and/or with flaws. And as said above, Marcus Thornton has old man strength, and old man moves. Plus, while he's not a long player, he's a good athlete and holds his own against just about anyone in the paint. Djurisic has wide shoulders, and Maten is an excellent shot blocker off the bench, so interior defense has been a strength of this team. With those 3, plus Mann, Gaines, and Frazier also have good noses for long rebounds, so Georgia has been an excellent rebounding team as well.
TOC: Bonus: score prediction. Also, Yante Maten was a one-time MSU recruit and is from Michigan, if you want to toss that in anywhere.
DS: Thank goodness the kid loves snakes, because reports were Georgia's herpetology department helped us land him over offers from Sparty and Indiana. He's been a fantastic find. The homer in me says Gaines and Mann are aggressive closing out shooters, Mann gets to the line a lot, and our bigs can control the paint for a 68-63 W. But I've spent probably a decade betting on Izzo advancing in my brackets, and he's rarely failed me, so my head is saying it'll be more like 68-56 for the guys in green as our players look slowed from injuries and the whistles don't come to save us, and y'all are severely underrated due to early season injuries and that Texas Southern loss.
Thanks again to Mr. Sanchez and Dawg Sports! We'll add a link to our responses on their site later this week!