ATHENS – Georgia may have finally found its identity, and its formula for success. That’s the good news for the Bulldogs.
The only problem: It may not be as applicable against Florida on Tuesday, in what sets up as a hugely important game for Georgia’s season.
The winning formula, on display in Saturday’s rout at Mississippi State: Good perimeter defense, followed by good rebounding, and then good inside shots on the other end. Three-pointers, once the crux of Georgia’s offense, was suddenly just an added bonus.
Now here comes the bad news: Florida, which starts three players at least 6-foot-8, has the ability to negate the rebounding advantage. It did last month, when it had lived off of offensive rebounds, and its hounding pressure defense dictated the tempo. The result was a 14-point loss for Georgia.
“We were playing on their terms, last game. And this game we’re trying to impose our will,” Georgia sophomore forward Yante Maten said. “We were sped up, and need to make sure we get back on defense, transition defense, and be aggressive and authoritative on offense.”
Maten, who is now Georgia’s leading scorer (16 points per game) and rebounder (8) has been consistent all season. But it’s another player who gives Georgia hope that this game can be different.
Freshman Derek Ogbeide is coming off a 13-rebound performance at Mississippi State. His offense may still be rough – he’s only averaging 3.6 points – but his rebounding is proving critical.
Georgia was out-rebounded in five of its first six games this season, which coincided with Ogbeide’s absence: He missed the first five games with a shoulder injury, then only played a couple minutes in the next two games.
Since then, Georgia has won or tied the rebounding margin in 11 of 16 games, losing all five games when it didn’t – including at Florida, when Ogbeide had five rebounds, but Florida had 24 second-chance points. So for head coach Mark Fox, lately it’s because more an issue of focus.
“It was a weakness of our team, rebounding, early in the year. And even though we’ve done better, I still look at it as a weakness,” Fox said. “We’ve got to pay attention to it. We’ve been more consistent on the glass, but that’s because we’ve been paying attention to it. We’ve got to continue to do so.”
When Georgia is rebounding well, not only is it not leading to second-chance points for the opposition, but it’s giving the perimeter players the freedom to guard the perimeter tightly. So the two defensive strengths go hand-in-hand.
“We can play a little more out, and not help as much (inside),” junior Kenny Paul Geno said. “Derek was down there just rebounding everything. It was great.”
But Florida offers a much different match-up than Mississippi State, especially its pressure defense. In the first match-up, the Bulldogs turned it over 14 times and couldn’t get many open looks, especially from outside.
This is a game that could prove critical to Georgia’s postseason chances. The two team’s records are similar: Both are 7-5 in the SEC, while Florida is 16-9 overall and Georgia is 14-9. But Florida is ranked 31 in the all-important RPI, while Georgia is 67.
Gators coach Mike White, whose team has lost two of three and three of its past five, was in full Lou Holtz mode on Monday, saying his team will be “a significant underdog” on Tuesday night.
“It’s a huge challenge, and we just hope we’re in striking distance in the second half,” White said.
But if the Bulldogs do impose their will this time, as Maten put it, then it’s a good bet rebounding has a lot to do with it.