ATHENS – From this point on, Georgia’s season can be equated to a tennis match. The Bulldogs need to hold serve at home and hope to score some breaks here and there on the road.
That plan of action gets put to the test Saturday as Georgia plays host to Auburn at Stegeman Coliseum (5:30 p.m., SEC Network). The Bulldogs (12-8, 5-4 SEC) are considered the better team and are the favored team. But they’ll encounter an Auburn squad (9-12, 3-6) that coach Mark Fox characterizes as “very dangerous” and one that already has recorded a victory over Kentucky.
“They make a lot of 3-point shots, a team that spreads the scoring around and they have a dynamic lead scorer,” Fox said.” A very, very dangerous team is how I would describe them because they can fill it up in a hurry.”
Georgia need not look any further than last season to find a cautionary tale. The Tigers also had a losing record (11-13) on Valentines Day last year and were 11-point underdogs when they came to Athens to face a 16-win UGA team. The game played to script until five minutes were remaining and the Bulldogs blew a nine-point lead on the way to a 69-68 loss.
“We’ve got to make sure we don’t lay an egg,” senior guard Kenny Gaines said. “I mean, last year really has nothing to do with this year. It’s a different team for us, a different team for them. But they’re a good team with good 3-point shooters and we just need to focus on what we need to do this year. Last year speaks for itself.”
Georgia has been pretty solid at home this season. It was there at the affectionately-nicknamed “Stegasauros” that the Bulldogs pulled off an upset of then-Top-25-ranked South Carolina 69-56 this past Tuesday.
For the season, Georgia is 11-3 on its home floor this season and 4-1 in SEC play. No. 8 Texas A&M thumped the Bulldogs 79-45 back on Jan. 16.
Meanwhile, the Tigers have struggled on the road under second-year coach Bruce Pearl. They’re 1-7 away from Auburn Arena.
But Auburn’s potential to pull off upsets is great simply because of their makeup. Nobody in the league comes close to launching as many 3-point shots. They’ve tried 556 and made 35.6 percent of them (198). That’s nearly 200 more than Georgia and 66 more than Ole Miss, the SEC’s next closest team.
Kareem Canty can almost account for the difference himself. The Harlem, N.Y., native and junior transfer from Marshall has attempted 191 3s, making 36.1 percent. Freshman Bryce Brown of Stone Mountain has also tried 133, coming mainly off the bench, and made the exact same percentage.
Georgia has a pretty good jump shooter of its own in sophomore guard J.J. Frazier, who has made 41.5 percent of his 123 attempts from beyond the arc. But the Bulldogs are a much more inside-oriented team. Between Yante Maten’s steady presence in the post and Charles Mann’s penchant for driving to the basket, it’s inside the paint where the Bulldogs would appear to have an advantage.
Mann, the 6-5 senior guard, broke Alec Kessler’s career record for successful trips to the foul line when he made 6-of-8 on Tuesday to improve to 553-of-805 for his career. He’s currently fifth all time in the SEC in attempts and sixth in makes.
“To this day I don’t know how many free throws I’ve made or how many times I’ve been to the line,” Mann said. “I just try to be aggressive and play the way I was taught.”
However the Bulldogs get it done, in the end it’s going to be about protecting their home court. Following Saturday’s game they’re on the road at Kentucky and Mississippi State and will return to face a surging Florida team.
Georgia simply must take care of business.
“It’s important to protect your home court, certainly,” Fox said. “But there’s no pressure, per se. You’re trying to win every night whether it’s home or on the road. Obviously when you’re at home you’ve got to take advantage of it.”
Like everything else between Georgia and Auburn, it seems, the couldn’t get more even. The Bulldogs come in leading 91-90.