ATHENS – Kentucky may be a bigger, stronger, higher-ranked team. The Wildcats may be the more regal basketball program and may feature one of the game’s greatest coaches. They may indeed beat Georgia at Stegeman Coliseum on Tuesday, as they often do.
But the Bulldogs absolutely won’t be intimidated by the whole Big Blue thing — least of all head coach Tom Crean – when Kentucky visits for ESPN’s “Super Tuesday” televised matchup (7 p.m.; radio: WSB 750-AM & 95.5-FM).
Crean and Calipari are friends and peers and their teams have met often on the hardwood. Calipari usually has had the best team on the court, but not always, and Kentucky hasn’t always won. In fact, Crean is 4-4 against the Wildcats as head coach at Marquette and Indiana and 2-3 head-to-head with Calipari on the UK bench.
Of this, Georgia’s players are keenly aware. In Crean, they believe.
“Yeah, he’s talked about the history between him and Coach Calipari,” Georgia junior guard Tyree Crump said. “… Coach Crean’s a genius, so he knows what he’s talking about. If we just listen do him, we’ll do good.”
Calipari and Crean have had some doosies over the years. None were better – at least from Crean’s perspective – than the Indiana-Kentucky matchup in Bloomington in December of 2011. Crean’s unranked Hoosiers knocked off the No. 1-ranked Wildcats 73-72.
Crean was asked whether he shared anything about that game with his current squad.
“I actually did bring it up last night,” Crean said before the Bulldogs’ practice Monday. “I just gave them an analogy where I thought we let our guard down in that game. … We had a 10-point lead with 7:38 to go and Kentucky had to call a timeout. And we took our foot off the gas and when you’re playing these great teams, no matter what it is, you can’t take your foot off the gas.”
The two coaches most recent matchup came in the 2016 NCAA Tournament when Indiana sent the Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and the Wildcats home from Des Moines in the second round, 73-67.
Nobody is going to confuse Crean’s first Georgia team with any of those that battled Coach Cal’s Wildcats or his two Marquette teams that beat Kentucky in the 2003 and 2008 NCAA tournaments. The Bulldogs enter Tuesday’s contest with a 9-6 record (1-2 SEC) while Kentucky (12-3, 2-1) comes in ranked 12th in its annual rebuild under Calipari.
The Wildcats lead the all-time series 126-26 and are 42-17 in games played in Athens over the years. But they’ve shown vulnerability already, losing to Alabama 77-75 in their SEC road opener Jan. 5 in Tuscaloosa.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s been pretty good at home. The Bulldogs are 7-1 at Stegeman this season, with their only loss coming in a buzzer-beater to a then-No. 20-ranked Arizona State team that they led by 18 at one point.
Georgia beat Vanderbilt 82-63 in Athens last Wednesday. And if nothing else, the Bulldogs ought to be seasoned against top-notch competition. Their first two conference road games were against the league’s defending co-champions, Tennessee and Auburn. Georgia couldn’t hang at all against the No. 3-ranked Vols, losing 96-50 in Knoxville, but was considerably more competitive most of the way against the 14th-ranked Tigers, who pulled away late in a 93-78 victory.
In SEC play, Kentucky beat Texas A&M (85-74) and Vanderbilt (56-47) in Lexington since the loss at Alabama.
Tuesday’s matchup will feature two of the SEC’s youngest rosters and include the notable sidebar of a former Georgia commitment — 6-foot-3 guard Ashton Hagans of Cartersville — starting at point guard for Kentucky. But, to be sure, the focus of ESPN’s broadcast will be acutely focused on the relationship of Calipari and Crean.
They talk up each other as “great friends” and mutual admirers. But they are also known in basketball circles for being fiercely competitive against one another, on the recruiting trail and on the court.
“We’ve had a friendship for a long time,” Crean said of Calipari. “I have a ton of respect for him, I have long before I ever met him and I certainly have during the years of our friendship and the times of competing against him. I think he’s a great coach, I think he’s built great programs wherever he’s been. I think he deserves to be in the hall of fame.”
Calipari was asked directly Monday if he thought of Crean as friend or foe.
“He’s been a friend for 30 years,” Calipari told reporters in Lexington. “Friend/foe? I mean, he’s a competitor. Like, he’ll want to win this game and he’ll build it up to be a Super Bowl. But I’ve always respected what he does and we’ve been friends.”
Calipari is right about Crean building up the game. The Kentucky contest was one of the first of eight sellouts already on the books for the Bulldogs, who are also expecting a capacity crowd for Saturday’s game against Florida. And Crean doesn’t mince words when he talks about Georgia fans needing to play a significant role Tuesday night.
“We need them to be early, to be loud, to be crazy, obnoxious, whatever it takes,” Crean said, as if giving pregame instructions to his team. “Early on, establish themselves, be into it and help us through everything. You know, if we’re on a run, help us keep it going. If we’ve got to get a run going, help us get that going. Continue to read the game like they have been and just be loud. It’s going to be our first ESPN game of the year, and not only does that bring a lot of attention to our program, to their program, to the SEC, but it brings a lot of attention to the fan base.”
On the court, Crean expects his team to do its part. The Bulldogs have been a different animal at home versus on the road. Four days after going 1-for-20 from 3-point range at Tennessee, Georgia made nine 3s in the win over Vanderbilt. Included in that barrage was 19 second-half points from Rayshaun Hammonds, who had gone scoreless in Knoxville.
More than 24 hours before Tuesday’s tipoff, the Bulldogs already were in a state of high-anticipation for the Wildcats’ visit.
“We’re very excited,” said Hammonds, a 6-7 sophomore who leads the Bulldogs in scoring at 13.9 points per game. “We know it’s going to be a big game for us. We know they’ll come with great competitive spirit and we’re definitely going to bring ours. It’s a big game for us to make a statement in the SEC and let people know we’re here.”
Crean had made no attempt to downplay the hype factor. His very presence is part of it. But he believes between the maturation process and the challenging early schedule his young team has endured, the Bulldogs should be able to stand up to whatever Kentucky can bring.
After all, he’s done it before.
“We opened up on the road with the two defending champions of the league, the co-champions, and it does prepare you for the level of play that you are going to see,” Crean said. “I hope it is also giving them an indication that they can compete with it and I think that is extremely important as well. … I think on any given night, and I hope we are included in this, that anybody could beat anybody. That’s what happens when you have a great league and, from everything I’ve seen, I think that is the case in this league.”