Dawgs look to keep up in 2007


Published: Saturday, January 6, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 6, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

On the break and in the paint, Florida's athletic frontcourt dominated Georgia last season.

In Florida's Southeastern Conference opener a year ago at Athens, Ga., forward Joakim Noah surprised the Bulldogs with his speed, consistently beating Georgia down the court during a 24-point game.

Two months later, Noah did his damage in the paint, working around Dave Bliss and Younes Idrissi with a variety of post moves during a career-high, 37-point scoring night.

When No. 3 Florida opens SEC play today at home against the Bulldogs, baskets inside might not be as easy to come by. With the addition of 6-foot-8 junior forward Takais Brown and 6-10 freshman center Albert Jackson, Georgia has more answers for Noah and 6-10 junior center Al Horford.

"They've become a very deep team in the frontcourt with some size and some strength," Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

Brown, a transfer from Southeastern Illinois College, ranks in the top 25 in the SEC in scoring (14.7 ppg) and rebounding (5.1 rpg). Bliss returns as the starting center but rotates frequently with the 250-pound Jackson and sophomore 7-footer Rashad Singleton, who has blocked 17 shots in 12 games.

"Our returning players are better, stronger and more experienced," Georgia coach Dennis Felton said. "Our two new players (Albert Jackson and Takais Brown) are both strong and athletic on the SEC level. We're better off inside than we were a year ago."

The question is, have the Bulldogs improved enough to handle two future NBA first-round draft picks? Combined, Noah and Horford are averaging 25.0 points, 16.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game, and are back on the floor together at 100 percent after being slowed by injuries and illnesses.

Horford is regaining form after missing the first two games of his career with a high ankle sprain last month, posting double-doubles in scoring and rebounding in two of his last three games. Noah played through an upper respiratory infection in early December, when Florida lost at rival Florida State.

Horford came away impressed when he watched film on Brown.

"Very physical player on the inside, very good finisher around the rim," Horford said. "Good offensive rebounder. It's going to be a big key in the game for us to be able to stop them in the frontcourt."

Added junior forward Corey Brewer, "(Brown) has been scoring in the block, so we have to keep him from getting the ball in the block."

Felton is wary of Horford and Noah because of their speed and ability to handle the basketball.

"They're the fastest-running post players in the nation," Felton said. "That's the first thing that can really catch you by surprise when you haven't seen it before."

On the perimeter, Georgia returns starting guards Mike Mercer, Levi Stukes and Sundiata Gaines. Sophomore guard Billy Humphrey and swingman Terrance Woodbury, healthy after knee problems last season, give the Bulldogs one of the deepest perimeters in the league.

Though Georgia's guards have struggled with shooting of late (29.2 percent during its current three-game losing streak), they have tried to make up for it on the defensive end of the floor. Led by the quick hands of Mercer and Gaines, Georgia is forcing 20.2 turnovers per game.

"They're a well-balanced team," UF point guard Taurean Green said. "They now have inside threats as well as outside threats. We're going to have to come ready to play."

Kevin Brockway can be reached at (352) 374-5054 or by e-mail at brockwk@gvillesun.com.

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