ATHENS — Don’t call them the “Baby Bulldogs,” because this Georgia basketball team has taken off the training wheels and is growing up quickly.
Coach Tom Crean, in only his second season and with a roster featuring nine freshmen, recorded only the second road win in school history against a Top 10-ranked team last Saturday at No. 9 Memphis.
On Tuesday night, with a sellout crowd jammed into Stegeman Coliseum, Georgia takes aim at SEC blue blood Kentucky (TV: 9 p.m., ESPN).
“It’s time to put on your grown-man pants now,” UGA junior forward Rayshaun Hammonds said on Monday. “It’s big games from now on. You can’t take any days off—every day is for real.”
No doubt, Georgia (10-3) opens the SEC portion of its schedule with six straight games against NCAA tournament teams from a season ago.
The includes a double-dose of Coach John Calipari’s Wildcats (10-3), as the Bulldogs play a return game in Lexington on Jan. 21.
Kentucky is ranked No. 14 in the AP Top 25 and No. 17 in the KenPom basketball ratings. Georgia is No. 64 in the KenPom ratings.
The Wildcats are a 3-point favorite to snap the Bulldogs’ 8-game home court win streak, per VegasInsider.com.
Crean won two outright Big Ten titles at Indiana after rebuilding the Hoosiers’ program, taking over a team with just two walk-ons in 2009.
Crean’s development of the Georgia program has been a work in progress. There is no tradition to build on in the football-mad Peach State.
The Bulldogs’ CBS nationally televised win at Memphis turned heads on Saturday, however, and could prove to be a launch point.
Basketball royalty will be at court side with ESPN’s Jay Bilas calling the game. Few opinions carry as much weight in basketball circles as those from Bilas, a former Duke player and popular sports philosopher.
A win over Kentucky would go miles for Georgia, which was included in a FoxSports bracketology projection on Monday.
Crean can see it; he said this Kentucky team has similarities to the Memphis team the Bulldogs beat.
“There’s tremendous athleticism, there’s a great burst, and they play both ends,” Crean said. “Memphis was getting 30 percent of their points in transition; Kentucky is getting 32 percent of their points in transition.
“The difference right now is the physicality. Kentucky is a tremendously physical, aggressive team.”
That’s where the 6-foot-9 Hammonds needs to step up.
The Bulldogs will also need a strong performance from 6-5 combo guard Anthony Edwards.
Edwards, a projected NBA lottery pick, was uncharacteristically off his mark at Memphis, just 4-for-17 shooting from the floor.
But Edwards made plays in other areas with his five rebounds and four assists, along with stellar defensive play.
Indeed, it was Edwards who came down with the rebound on a Memphis miss in the final seconds to seal the game.
The Bulldogs improved to 4-0 this season in games decided by four points or less — a notable improvement from their 0-6 mark in such contests last season.
“I think Coach Crean, and the rest of the coaching staff, are doing a great job in practice … . putting us through situational stuff where we are up or we are down,” UGA freshman point guard Sahvir Wheeler said. “With two minutes left, three minutes left, one minute left.
“Just playing those situations out that are happening in real life and in real games. So, I think our guys are more comfortable in that situation.”
Crean agreed, pointing to Georgia’s double-overtime win over SMU last month as a key.
“We have nine freshmen, that hasn’t changed,” Crean said. “Every game you hope is just a little more experience that they have, a little bit more knowledge but, most importantly, confidence and belief.
“When you win a game like that or you win some close games [like] SMU— that game helped us. Coming back from behind against Georgia Southern— that helped us. Those kind of things help you get better.”
Question is, are the Bulldogs all grown up enough to handle the Wildcats?
“It’s about playing Kentucky which is an outstanding program year in and year out, the benchmark of this league,” Crean said. “No question about that. It is the benchmark. It is what people look to. It’s a chance to compete against that in the best possible way coming off a great win for the program.”
Georgia junior PF Rayshaun Hammonds
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