KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — When it comes to getting an idea what SEC basketball might taste like this season, the Georgia Bulldogs will get a big orange mouthful on Saturday when they venture into Thompson-Boling Arena to sample the No. 3-ranked Tennessee Volunteers.
Might as well start at the Rocky Top, right?
“We have to play them at some point, so it’s fine,” Georgia coach Tom Crean said before his team left Athens on Friday. “They are playing really well and they are an outstanding team. They are very good at every facet of the game and are extremely well coached, so it will be a tough challenge.”
That might be an understatement. So far, the Vols (11-1) are looking like the class of the league. That includes the high-and-mighty Big Blue of Kentucky. Riding the talents of forwards Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, Tennessee has already vanquished the likes of Memphis, Gonzaga, Wake Forest and Louisville. So far the only setback came at the hands of Kansas, and that was 87-81 in overtime in New York.
The Vols are definitely battle tested and excited to begin defense of last year’s unexpected SEC championship at home. But Tennessee also stands as a reminder to Georgia about what can happen in any given season. The Vols were picked 13th in the SEC before last season, same as the Bulldogs (8-4) were this season.
“We are going to a hostile environment, of course, but we played them last year in their last SEC game,” Georgia sophomore Nicolas Claxton said. “We want to prove that we can win. We don’t want to just play them close, we want to win.”
The Bulldogs gave Tennessee fits the last time they were up that way. They went ahead by double digits and scored 42 points in the first half before finally falling 66-61 in the last game of the regular season.
That has been a theme for Georgia again this season. The Bulldogs blew an 18-point lead to then 20th-ranked Arizona State on the way to a 76-74 loss last month.
But Georgia rebounded nicely and has since won three in a row over Oakland, Georgia Tech and UMass and five of six since a trip to the Cayman Islands in late November.
Claxton has been a big part of that improvement. The 6-foot-11 sophomore is coming off a final week of December in which he earned SEC play of the week honors after a 20-point, 11-rebound performance against UMass.
Georgia’s front-line play will be a key for the team and certainly a focus for Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. broadcasts (TV: SEC Network; radio: WSB 750 AM & 95.5 FM). Georgia’s other up-and-coming forward Rayshaun Hammonds (14.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and Claxton should match a formidable matchup for Tennessee’s Williams (20.1, 8-3) and Schofield (18.2, 6.0).
Georgia certainly has the Vols’ respect and full attention.
“We have yet to out-play Georgia’s team,” associate head coach Rob Lanier said on the SEC’s weekly coaches’ conference call. “So Saturday represents an opportunity for us to do a better job against a team that in a lot of ways has kind of had our number.”
Crean, who has never played at Thompson-Boling and is making his SEC coaching debut, is going in with his eyes wide open.
“I don’t know; it is what it is,” Crean said. “They are a really good team. … I haven’t played them yet, we haven’t coached against them. We just have to go in there and be ready to compete.”
Whatever the Bulldogs discover, they can certainly put to good use for their next SEC road trip. It will be next Saturday at Auburn, which shared the SEC title with Tennessee. A home game against Vanderbilt sits in between.