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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Fox's Dawgs Have Some Bite

I haven't been able to cover much basketball so far this season with football and the coaching search and various other distractions cropping up. I'm hoping that will change as we get into the new year, but in the meantime, we've kept up some excellent coverage of Mark Fox's crew thanks to Fletcher Page, who has been on the beat for the majority of the Dawgs' games for us.

Of course, I wanted some hoops talk on the blog, too, so Fletcher was kind enough to put together some thoughts on Georgia's huge victory over Illinois and what might still be to come for the Dawgs. Here goes...

I’m still trying to get my head around Georgia’s big win over Illinois, four days after the fact. And just to get a couple notes out of the way.

1. I didn’t give the Bulldogs a chance to win.

2. After watching warm-ups, keeping the game within reach, in my mind, was a stretch.

3. I don’t think I was alone in this line of thinking (judging from the amount of Georgia fans in the Gwinnett Arena. There may have been more Illini faithful filling the seats.

But I was proven wrong from the opening tip.

Following the game I joined four of my closest buddies for a quick trip to a Harrah’s Casino to partake in some post-graduation (University of Georgia, December class of 2009) gambling.

And as we surveyed the casino floor for the first hour or so, I gravitated toward the blackjack tables, despite never playing live before. I tell this story because my blackjack experience felt like the Illinois game. I’ve played, and won at the slots before (let’s say, teams like St. Louis, New Orleans or Jacksonville St). I’ve also wasted money sitting at said slots (in similar fashion, UAB and Wofford). No disrespect to the slots, but blackjack and poker is where it’s at in casinos, and Illinois was Georgia’s blackjack.

Anyway, back to my gambling. I finally worked up the nerve to sit at a $15 dollar minimum bet table (hey, at my budget, I felt like Michael Jordan laying down $100,000 a hand. (All I lacked was a cigar. And a real amount of money). I started with $40, and doing quick math, I realized I could be heading back to the ATM in less than five minutes. But I had a strategy, developed by my good friend Heath. Since I’d never played before, but kind of knew what was going on, I needed to keep things simple. If the dealer wasn’t showing a face card, and I had 12 or more, I was staying. I wasn’t concerned with splitting cards, doubling down and all that. If the dealer was showing 10, or a face card, I’d hit. That simple.

My first hand: a measly 14, with the dealer showing five. I stayed put, and the dealer busted. What a rush, and I was on my way from there. Second hand: I had a King and nine, dealer showing a King. He flopped a nine, and push. Wow, I almost lost $15, but I took a shot and kept playing.

I went on to win six of the next nine hands, and started to build confidence. After a few more hands I cashed out at $115, stood up and realized, I can play this game, and hold my own. Yet, I still wasn’t quite sure what I was doing.

And Georgia’s experience with Illinois was much the same. The game started, and like me, they won the first hand. The Bulldogs weren’t flashy, working methodically on offense to get shots and at times Illinois got some easy baskets, but Georgia wasn’t losing it’s money. Finishing tied, 32-32, at halftime Georgia players had to be thinking: We can play this game and hold our own.

Well, I couldn’t stop at just 20 minutes of blackjack. My buddy Heath and I, joined by another friend, sat back down at a $10 table. And I won my first four hands. At this point I’ve got the swagger, thinking how easy this was and wondering why I hadn’t played this enjoyable game in the past. And then I lost $170 dollars in about 15 minutes. Nervous, but still focused on my next hand, I was dealt two sixes. Not quite sure of what I was doing, I split the pair. My first card dealt was another six. “Hell, split it again,” Heath said. So I did. Ended with a 16 for my first hand. Then a five came, so I doubled down. That hand turned into a 17. And then another six game, so I split once more. I’m now working with four hands against the dealer, with my last two showing an 18 and a 15. These were not strong hands, but the dealer had a seven.

At this point I’ve got a crowd behind me, and the dealer, Bob, swears he’s never seen a hand like this. I didn’t believe the guy. Had to have the dealer bust, or I was flat broke. Adding to his seven, he flipped a ten. Yes, he’d have to hit again. And….BOOM! Bob flips a nine, for a 24. And I went from nothing to $220. Our party of five, joined by random players went wild, high fiving and screaming. Even the pit boss (who looked eerily similar to Avery Johnson) was smiling. That’s saying something.

Anyway, in a roundabout way, I started connecting my blackjack experience to the Illinois game. Georgia got up by as much as nine in the second half, and got somewhat ahead of itself. The Bulldogs started working the clock, and soon enough, the riches turned into a deficit. Blowing the lead, the Illini pulled ahead with 30 seconds to go. Georgia needed this win, to prove big games could be won. Sophomore forward Trey Thompkins gave the Bulldogs their “split sixes” moment, hitting four free throws, and securing a crucial rebound down the stretch.

Comparisons to blackjack aside, Georgia needed this win. Illinois rolled into Duluth with an 8-2 record, with wins over ranked Clemson and Vanderbilt. And just so you know, I did attend last year’s game in Chicago’s United Center when the Illini embarrassed the Bulldogs by 34 points. That game was a bust.

When I told my friends about the huge win, I got the “How in the world did that happen?” response, and questions about how Illinois played. But the Illini didn’t lose this game. They had only eight turnovers, shot 80 percent at the free-throw line and guard Demetri McCamey scored 21 points and looked like a cornerstone player.

But Georgia was the bigger team, wanted to play more physical, wanted to make more hustle plays and wanted to prove they could hang with a power program.

And that’s exactly what happened.

Georgia outrebounded Illinois 37 to 29, scoring 12 second-chance points.

“The boards really killed us and points in the paint did too,” said Illinois head coach Bruce Webber.

The Bulldogs scored 38 points in the paint.

And, despite 15 turnovers, the Bulldogs had 16 assists. Georgia shot 49 percent from the field, adding 13-of-18 from the charity strip.

Know this about Thompkins: He’s not quite an Ace and a King, in terms of blackjack hands. But he is a solid 18. He can win some games, but there is still improvement to go. He did have some forced shots and missed a few wide-open guys while being double-teamed. But when Georgia needed those two points at the end, there was no doubt who was getting the ball. And Trey came through in the clutch. When he hit those free-throws, there was no sigh of relief or weight off his shoulders feel. He looked like he had been there before, and that’s a needed attribute from a team’s go-to guy.

Also, Travis Leslie has his own blackjack likeness. Doubling down on the eleven is the only way to play. Sometimes you’re dealt a King for 21. Sometimes you get a four for 15. In the second half Saturday night, Leslie was a 21. He had 13 points, looking unstoppable off the dribble. He drew, by my count, four fouls in the second half alone while driving to the basket. Yes, he is an athletic freak, evidenced by the block he had with just over a minute to play that kept Georgia on top by two at the time. But don’t forget, we’ve seen Leslie come out mentally flat before, racking up turnovers and getting in early foul trouble. That’s what happened in the first half. But he is slowly putting his game together, and it’s been fun to watch his progression.

Georgia is building a decent team behind the two sophomores Thompkins and Leslie. And Ricky McPhee is becoming a solid third guy, a Steve Kerr-like shooter to join Georgia’s Jordan and Pippen (I know, I just compared Trey Thompkins to MJ. I’m sorry). But this team has some nagging deficiencies.

Georgia got only four points from the bench (not counting Thompkins’ 21, who came off the bench after having two wisdom teeth removed earlier in the week). At the end of the game, point guard Dustin Ware and Thompkins looked gased, with hands on the knees during stoppage in play and Leslie was cramping up. Chris Barnes and Jeremy Price combined for three points. Freshman Ebuka Anyaorah, Demario Mayfield and Vincent Williams logged only 16 minutes combined, totaling two points. And Drazen Zlovaric, or The Secret Weapon as I call him, struggled mightily Saturday. Georgia was minus-7 when he was on the floor in the second half.

As a team, the Bulldogs shot 3-of-13 from three. As Thompkins gets better, the double-teams will only increase. Somebody other than McPhee has to be able to shoot the ball with confidence to spread the floor to at least give Trey a chance to do work.

Ware is really the only player on the perimeter Georgia has that I trust with the basketball. This just isn’t a team adept at handling the ball.

Coach Mark Fox’ team is what it is. This is a team with size and talent in the frontcourt, and still working to find solid perimeter contributions.

But to finally sit at the blackjack table, so to speak, playing a formidable opponent, and to come out on top at the end of the night was huge for a young team in the first year of the Fox Era.

Sitting at the table was the first step, and taking home a profit with a win over Illinois proves Georgia can get the job done.

As for me, as the night wore on, I had my ups and downs gambling, but ended up tripling my money.

And you can bet, like Georgia, I’ll be sitting at the table again in the near future.


PatinDC said...

Can you please tell me where you played Black jack. Every place I have ever played the dealer stands on 17 and hits on 16. I would love to play a table where the dealer hits on 17.

Anonymous said...

I watched a similar "BOOM" experience at a casino before. A friend's wife was sitting next to me and had one of those hands that she kept splitting. Next thing we knew, she was showing 3 blackjacks and a 20. Dealer busted. Place went crazy. I don't think I will ever see that again in my lifetime.

Anonymous said...

What harrahs did this guy go to???

From Gwinnett Arena-> Harrahs w/ live table games? Where is this place?

Anonymous said...

7 + 10 + 9 = 24?

Dealer hits on 17?

Do you still have the $220 on you, or is this just a story your "friends" told you when you awoke the next morning from a drunken stupor?