ATHENS — Georgia basketball has precious little margin for error on Wednesday night when it puts its three-game win streak on the line on the road against preseason SEC favorite Tennessee.
The No. 15-ranked Vols have the bigger, longer, deeper, more experienced and more talented team. It’s why the Big Orange is a 12 1/2-point favorite in the 8 p.m. tip (TV: ESPN2) in Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville.
“They have a Hall-of-Fame coach in Rick Barnes as well as a great staff and culture,” UGA coach Tom Crean said.
“This Tennessee team has tremendous depth, strength, quickness and speed. They can beat you many different ways, but it starts with their relentless pressure on defense.”
Georgia, with eight newcomers including three graduate transfers, has its first three-game win streak in four seasons after recent wins over Auburn, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.
For the Bulldogs to have any sort of chance of upsetting the Vols, they’ll have to continue the hot-shooting they’ve enjoyed during the win streak (53.8 percent from the floor, 46.9 percent from three).
That figures to be a challenge, as Crean alluded. Tennessee ranks sixth in the NCAA in scoring defense, allowing just 59.6 points pregame. Per KenPom.com metrics, the Vols are tops in the NCAA in adjusted defensive efficiency, too.
Tennessee boasts reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year Yves Pons and 6-9 veteran John Fulkerson, who is on the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 Watch List.
Another concern for the Bulldogs has been their propensity for offensive turnovers, ranking 335th in the nation out of 340 teams with 17.3 per game — offsetting UGA’s rank of 17th in the nation of forcing turnovers (16.89).
Crean, who orchestrated an 80-63 upset over Tennessee last season, knows better than anyone how important ball control will be.
“It all starts with not turning the ball over and really getting the ball stopped in transition,” Crean said.
The Vols, meanwhile, have continued to find different ways to win games.
Tennessee scored an 82-71 road win at Kentucky last Saturday, getting 27 points from freshman Keon Johnson and another 23 points from freshman Jaden Springer. The pair was part of a four-guard lineup that erased a 10-point second-half lead.
But Barnes, who is 2-5 against Georgia while at Tennessee, made it clear the Vols’ identity will not change
“We have got enough guys that on any given night we have five or six guys that can do some damage on the offensive end,” Barnes said. “And we are expecting those six and seven guys that we are counting on heavily to do what they are supposed to do on the defensive end.”
Barnes made it clear his biggest concern with Georgia is point guard Sahvir Wheeler.
Wheeler ranks fourth in the nation with 7.4 assists per game (leads the SEC) and is coming off a 16-point 9-assist outing against Vanderbilt.
“Offensively, they can put numbers up on you,” Barnes said. “I think Tom (Crean) again will look to attack certain situations with what he sees and thinks he can take advantage of.
“They’re very efficient when they get out into transition. Their ball screens and actions are really good because of the speed and quickness they get from the point position.”
GeorgiaDogs.com Did You Know
“Georgia is 4-1 in games decided by four points or less, including 3-0 in SEC play this season.
Last season, the Bulldogs were 5-3 in such outings. That combined 9-4 record is a dramatic difference from 2018-19, when Georgia was 0-6 in such outings, with each setback coming to NCAA Tournament teams.”