In a matter of hours, Kentucky looks to bounce back after a blowout loss from Arkansas when they travel to Athens, Georgia, taking on Mark Fox’s Bulldogs. At this point we all sound like broken records, but this evening’s game is absolutely critical for Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament hopes. Winning would put us in a slightly better position for an at-large berth, but losing to sub .500 Georgia would mean almost certain death for a season already holding on by the proverbial thread. However, throw the Dawgs’ losing record out the window because no road game is easy in the SEC with the word Kentucky etched across your chest. While Fox’s squad hasn’t lived up to expectations during the 2012-13 campaign, they’ll certainly force John Calipari and his players to earn a hard-fought victory in front of a raucous crowd.
In what seems like a common theme this season, Georgia, like most others in the SEC, is headlined by one star player in particular. That player for the Dawgs is 6-foot-5 sophomore guard, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Currently, the former McDonald’s All-American is averaging 18.0 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. Caldwell-Pope, the conference’s fourth leading scorer, has also been the model of efficiency while attaining those points; connecting on 51% of interior shots, 38% of perimeter jumpers, and 80% of free throw attempts. As if preparation weren’t difficult enough, much like Arkansas’ B.J. Young, he’s also an extremely efficient ball handler, losing the ball, on average, 2.1 times per game. Pressuring opponent’s athletic guards has been an issue for Kentucky all season long, and it could be magnified tonight as Caldwell-Pope precisely fits that billing. Granted, he isn’t the distributor that B.J. Young is, but if he’s able to shoot without pressure, like his numbers would suggest, Kentucky’s season could turn sour with the quickness. However, if the Cats are able to shut him down, you’ll be able to see why Georgia is ranked 180th nationally in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency.
While Georgia’s offense is highly offensive (hey-oh), their defense is actually rather stout, ranking 61st nationally in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency according to KenPom.com. Thankfully for Kentucky, the Bulldog defense isn’t centered around forcing turnovers as evidenced by their 242nd ranking in that category. However, Mark Fox’s squad excels in interior defense, forcing opponents to shoot a suffocating 42% from inside the arc. This is primarily accomplished with the tremendous length on their roster. In fact, the Dawgs rank 23rd nationally in team height with seven players on their roster listed as 6-foot-7 or above. Naturally, their length aids them in numerous areas, but it mainly helps with defensive rebounding. Currently, the Bulldogs are ranked 90th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage, pulling down 70% of opponent misses. Surprisingly, it’s not Georgia’s big men who are tearing up the defensive glass, it’s 6-foot-5 Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, averaging 5.9 per game. Other than Caldwell-Pope, the Bulldogs rely on 6-foot-9 Marcus Thornton and 6-foot-4 Charles Mann to pull down defensive boards. The duo combines for 5.4 per game (2.9 and 2.5 respectively).
Again, it’s been stressed to the point of nauseousness in recent weeks, but a victory tonight is absolutely paramount for Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament hopes. Losing to sub .500 Georgia will likely destroy any chance the Wildcats had of making the big dance. In order to ensure the latter option from occurring, shutting down Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on both sides of the court is an absolute must. For that to happen, two things must occur. First, Archie Goodwin and Julius Mays must provide defensive pressure and contain lane penetration from the guard position. Secondly, Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress are responsible for keeping Caldwell-Pope off the defensive glass. If this happens, Georgia can be exposed as the team who lost to Mississippi State by 11 in Stegeman. If not, Georgia can be the team who finally pops Kentucky’s bubble.