Auburn travels to Athens Wednesday night to face Georgia at Stegeman Coliseum in what is a bit of a do-or-die game. The Tigers have lost four straight, and a defeat at the hands of a not-very-good Bulldogs team may just send the season into a total downward spiral.
There is something about the Wednesday games that sets the tone for the Saturday games. No need to re-hash the past four games, as the team is making an effort to right the wrongs. Joel Erickson has reported that there was a team meeting after the loss at Vanderbilt last week and Tony Barbee has indicated possible changes coming to the starting lineup.
The usual starters for Auburn are junior forward Allen Payne (6'6, 215), senior center Rob Chubb (6'10, 250), freshman guard Shaquille Johnson (6'5, 210), senior guard Josh Wallace (5'10, 170) and senior guard Frankie Sullivan (6'1, 206). With the possibility of changes in starters, what would that mean? Possibly starting freshman guard Brian Greene Jr (6'3, 205) over Wallace? Greene didn't hit his first three-pointer until the game against Illinois in his hometown of Chicago, but he has progressively improved since then. He had 14 points against South Carolina and 11 points against Vanderbilt. Starting Greene over Wallace could provide a boost in the offense, as he is a true point guard that can nail a three, and it allows Sullivan the opportunity to be a true shooting guard. However, Wallace is key on defense by playing low and leading the team in with 29 steals.
Given the size of the projected Georgia starters (more on that in a moment), there is that nagging thought that Barbee may go with two big men: Chubb and junior center Asauhn Dixon-Tatum (7'0, 230). Having both bigs on the floor offers a greater potential for rebounds and blocks, and both centers played well against Kentucky's size (Chubb with 14 points and seven rebounds, ADT with 10 points). It would be interesting to see how two bigs on the floor could fit into Barbee's system, since Auburn has two seven-footers signed on for next season: Ronald Delph, (7'0, 235) and Benas Griciunas, (7'0, 225).
Another potential candidate to break into the starting lineup is junior guard Chris Denson (6'2, 175). Denson is probably Auburn's second-best player, and his ability to drive to the basket is unmatched on Auburn's roster. After returning from academic ineligibility, he averaged 15.2 points in five starts before missing four games with a foot fracture. Denson looked hobbled coming off the bench against Kentucky and Vanderbilt, but against Ole Miss, he was back to his old self, scoring 18 points in a reserve role. Barbee may be ready to give the dynamic guard an expanded role.
Two players likely to see reserve minutes are senior forward Noel Johnson (6'6, 205) and freshman guard Jordan Price (6'5, 225). Like Denson, Price has been recovering from a foot fracture, but he hasn't regained the pop seen before his injury. Noel Johnson has a beautiful three-point stroke, but he's only 2-of-12 over his last three games, and needs to play more consistently on defense if he wants to gain a starting position.
Georgia is expected to start junior forward Donte' Williams (6'9, 225), freshman forward Brandon Morris (6'7, 205), senior center John Florveus (6'11, 240), sophomore guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (6'5, 205), and senior guard Vincent Williams (6'0, 165). Look for sophomore forward Nemanja Djurisic (6'8, 230) and freshman guard Charles Mann (6'4, 205) to make appearances off the bench. Caldwell-Pope is the most versatile player in the Dawgs' lineup, leading the team in scoring, rebounds and steals. With an average of 17.3 points per game, he has moved into second place in the SEC in scoring average, edging Sullivan's 16.9. Caldwell-Pope averages 6.4 rebounds per game and has 46 steals on the season. Williams is the team's best blocker with 17 sways.
The Dawgs are shooting 41.3 percent from the field, 34.5 percent from outside the perimeter and 67.6 percent from the foul line. They are averaging 59.4 points per game while allowing opponents to score 62.3. Georgia pulls down an average of 33.5 rebounds per game, and the Bulldogs turn it over 15.4 times per contest.
Auburn is shooting 42.5 percent from the field, 34.1 percent from three and 68.0 percent from the free throw line. The Tigers average 68.1 points per game, edging their opponents' 67.1. It's funny how numbers look nice averaged out. The scoring margin shows how close Auburn has been to a "W' in so many losses this season. Auburn averages 35.8 boards per game and turns over the ball 14.0 per contest. Both teams come in with identical records: 8-11 overall, 2-4 in league play. Caldwell-Pope is very Georgia's version of Sullivan, leading the Dawgs in scoring and minutes played and having started all 19 games.
In order for the Tigers to grab a win against the Bulldogs, they must contain Caldwell-Pope (obviously). He is a better all-around player than Ole Miss' one-dimensional Marshall Henderson, and Auburn has to find ways to be physical in the paint against him. Without a hot three-point guy, Georgia may be easier to manage around the arc, but in the recent win against Texas A&M, nine Dawgs other than Caldwell-Pope puts points on the board. Georgia can be taken, but this game is in Athens, and the Tigers have yet to prove themselves to be much of a road team. Auburn has what it takes to win this game -- shooters from outside the arc, improved free throw shooting and improved defense -- but will they be able to put it all together and keep it together for 40 minutes?
Tipoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. CT. The game will be televised on CSS/ESPN3, and audio broadcast available on the Auburn IMG Network / XM200.