Vanderbilt hits the road for a matchup against new-look Georgia

Vanderbilt is heading to Athens for their first game against an unranked team in over two weeks. But will the Commodores’ recently improved performances translate into a result against the Bulldogs?

Tyrin+Lawrence+dribbling+against+Alabama+on+January+17%2C+2023+%28Vanderbilt+Athletics%29.

Vanderbilt Athletics

Tyrin Lawrence dribbling against Alabama on January 17, 2023 (Vanderbilt Athletics).

Frankie Sheehy, Deputy Sports Editor

After a brutal two-week schedule of games against four straight ranked teams, the Vanderbilt Commodores (9-9, 2-3 SEC) will have a road test on Saturday against the Georgia Bulldogs (13-5, 3-2 SEC). Vanderbilt fans will remember that Georgia was the laughing stock of the SEC in men’s hoops last year, winning just one regular season conference game before being knocked out of the SEC Tournament in a 86-51 blowout against the Commodores. 2021-2022 was an embarrassing season for Georgia, leading to the firing of head coach Tom Crean. 

Unfortunately, this time won’t be so easy. With former Florida coach Mike White now at the helm, the Bulldogs are a far better and more organized team. They’ve already tripled last season’s SEC win total, knocked off then-No. 22 Auburn, and most importantly, broken into the top 10 in The Hustler’s prestigious power rankings. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt is a game under .500 in league games so far, but kept all four of their most recent top-tier opponents close. The least close game in Vanderbilt’s stretch against ranked teams was the 13-point win over Arkansas. So with both teams seemingly at a crossroads point in their season, here are a few factors to watch for in Saturday’s clash.

(Re)learning to play without Robbins

The Commodores learned Tuesday evening before their loss to no. 4 Alabama that senior forward Liam Robbins will be out 4-6 weeks with a sprained ankle. Somehow, Vanderbilt will need to find a way to replace Robbins’ 13.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, both team highs. But as head coach Jerry Stackhouse alluded to during his Thursday media availability, the Commodores have kept pace with top teams without Robbins before.

“We’ve played without Liam before. When Liam wasn’t available, Q [Quentin Millora-Brown] was our guy. We just need him to step up as well,” Stackhouse said. “He hasn’t had his best week or two, but we’re still very confident that he’s capable of picking it up.”

While Robbins’ scoring will be missed, his general paint presence on both sides of the ball has had an arguably greater impact. Robbins has averaged a staggering 2.9 blocks per game, second highest in the SEC. Millora-Brown and freshman Lee Dort will need to compensate for some of Robbins’ defensive presence, but Georgia’s rebounding is beatable: The Bulldogs are just 168th in the country in defensive rebounding per KenPom. The matchups between the two Vanderbilt big men and Georgia’s Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe will dictate much of the pace of the game, and could be a deciding factor.

The Battle of the Benches

As we’ve seen all season, Vanderbilt doesn’t really have a clear top starting five. Tyrin Lawrence, Colin Smith, QMB, and Myles Stute have typically started with either Trey Thomas or Ezra Manjon. However, this doesn’t account for the bench depth that has been brought by Jordan Wright, Dort or even Noah Shelby. Stackhouse has been reliant on that depth off the bench all season to the point that the top two scorers (Wright and Robbins) haven’t been starters. Vanderbilt ranks 42nd in the country in bench minutes (via KenPom). However, the Commodores’ bench activity may even be outmatched by Georgia: the Bulldogs are 4th in Division 1 in bench minutes. In fact, all twelve Georgia players who’ve seen any game time this season are averaging at least 10 minutes per appearance.

Energy and Commitment on Offense and Defense

While Georgia has no freshmen who get time on the floor, they’re not a particularly experienced team either. Kenpom ranks the Bulldogs in the bottom half of D-1 in experience as a team still in a sort of rebuilding phase. That lack of development may be behind Georgia’s biggest weakness: turnovers.

The Bulldogs are coughing the ball up on over 20% of offensive possessions, and only forcing turnovers on defense 17.7% of the time. While Georgia’s offensive turnover rate is the worst in the conference, so is Vanderbilt’s defensive turnover rate. The Commodores will need to show the same energy on defense they had in the second half against Arkansas to take advantage of Georgia’s sloppiness on offense.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Commodores will need to get open looks for Stute and Wright beyond the arc, and look to drive into the paint when possible. Stackhouse discussed on Thursday how the offense needs to improve from the loss to Alabama.

“We got some really good looks, but we’ve got to continue to try to get great looks,” Stackhouse said. “I think it’s up to a little more screening, better screening. A little better waiting on screening…and I think we’ll get even better looks than what we’ve had. So that will be the focus over the next couple days going into Saturday.”

Vanderbilt opened their SEC slate against South Carolina, a team near the bottom of the conference. Then they had four straight games against the top of the league. Now, the Commodores have a stretch with some teams more in the middle, around where Vanderbilt itself is expected to be. The Commodores have shown they can hold their own against the best ― but the path to an impressive conference record really starts with these kinds of difficult, away games against the SEC’s middle class. While the Bulldogs will go into the game as favorites, Vanderbilt has a real opportunity to show that they can survive the Robbins injury and put together a serious regular season resume. Saturday may not be the flashiest game left on the schedule, but it’s certainly an important one.

Vanderbilt at Georgia will tip off Saturday at 12 p.m. CST in Athens, Georgia.