If there was one major question surrounding the Georgia basketball team heading into the year, it had to do with the amount of production head coach Mark Fox would get from his bench.
Last year, he didn't receive much.
Instead, Trey Thompkins, Dustin Ware, Travis Leslie and Ricky McPhee (graduated) each averaged at least 30 minutes per game.
Flash forward to the current campaign. Entering Tuesday night's game against 24th-ranked Florida (7:02, ESPN), not only are the Bulldogs (14-4, 3-2) able to stay fresher by playing fewer minutes, but the subs off the bench are contributing in more ways than one.
It's been quite the turnaround. As a whole, Bulldog starters are averaging approximately three minutes less per game, while getting noticeable contributions from players like Chris Barnes, Sherrard Brantley, Connor Nolte and Marcus Thornton, each of whom are averaging at least 11.6 minutes per game, entering the game against the Gators (15-4, 4-1).
"Last year, I think it's well documented, that we were down late in games late in the year and depth was an issue for us last year," Fox said Monday. "It had a significant impact on games. So one of the things we really wanted to establish this year was a deeper team with a more diverse roster where we can play big or small, but also have the depth where we can hopefully keep guys fresh."
So far, that hasn't been a problem and something that will need to continue as the Bulldogs forge ahead in SEC play.
Fox has his fingers crossed.
"Without question the most difficult part of our non-league schedule was early and Trey's injury threw our rotation into a free for all," Fox said. "We used the month of December to give some of our guys some needed time and experience. Now we've got a deeper team, play more guys, keep these other guys fresh and it helps to play well when you're in position to do so."
Brantley and Thornton are beginning to establish themselves more and more every game.
During Saturday's 86-64 win over Mississippi State, Brantley helped bury the visiting Bulldogs by going 3-for-3 from three-point range, while Thornton scored seven points and tallied a season-best nine rebounds, tops on the squad. Georgia's bench was responsible for 27 points against MSU.
"Whatever helps the team is best for the team, is what I will do if it takes me playing more minutes, that's great. Whatever it takes," Thornton said. "I feel like I'm much improved defensively. I was OK when I got here, but there was a lot I had to learn about actual defensive principles that are undervalued in high school. Once I started getting those down and playing harder in practice every single day, it's obviously helped."
Thompkins has been duly impressed.
"Marcus is coming into his own. He's rebounding tough and figuring out where he can score within our offense. It's not foreign to him anymore. He's making plays now, just like we knew he would," Thompkins said. "He's great, now he knows how to play team defense. Coming out of high school he was long and bigger than everybody else, He just used his athleticism. Now that he's in college and guys are bigger and faster, but he's learned how to play harder on every possession and it's great."
Now, Fox just wants to see some consistency, beginning with tonight's game against the Gators, who with a loss to Georgia will allow the Bulldogs to pull into a first-place tie atop the SEC East.
"Marcus is a bright kid and he's improved every week since he's been here," Fox said. "I would say defensively he's been a pretty consistent performer for well over the past month and I think you'll start to see him make more and more offensive plays."
NOTES: Fox hinted that Barnes will likely make his second straight start ahead of Price.
A victory Tuesday will be the Bulldogs' 15th of the year, surpassing the entire win total in all of 2010. The Bulldogs are also expecting their fourth straight sellout.
Florida leads the overall series between these two programs 103-98, largely on the strength of its recent success. Gator teams have won 12 of the past 14 meetings. The two Georgia victories, however, came in the past two seasons, most recently a 78-76 win on Feb. 27, 2010 in Athens.
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