LEXINGTON, Ky. — It was the most memorable game of the year. The most exciting. The most riveting. Derek Willis hardly remembers any of it.
Thanks to the constant churning of the Kentucky basketball program, Willis, a junior forward, is one of the few on this year’s team who was at last year’s come-from-behind win at Georgia. Efforts to get him to recount it failed miserably.
“Oh, they were up on us?” Willis said. “Oh it happens. We ended up winning.”
On the other side of the room, another Wildcat, freshman Skal Labissiere, was confessing that when it came to this year’s Georgia team, “I don’t really know their roster very well.”
And just a few minutes earlier, assistant coach John Robic, in charge of scouting Georgia, took two stabs at pronouncing the name of Georgia’s sophomore forward.
“Matt-ten – or Ma-teen – boy has he gotten better,” Robic said.
Oh-for-two. It’s May-ten. Yes, Yante Maten has gotten much better. But no, Georgia is not on the radar enough for the preeminent program in the SEC, perhaps the country, to be fearful of what might occur on Tuesday night.
Here’s a good way to stump someone, both in Lexington and Athens: Which are the only two teams to reach the semifinals of the SEC tournament each of the past two years? Georgia and Kentucky. They’re also the only two teams to finish in the top four of the SEC each of the past two seasons.
“They’re a quality program. A solid program,” Jerry Tipton, who has been covering Kentucky for the Lexington Herald-Leader for decades, said of Georgia: “Not an upper-echelon program, but not a lower-echelon program either.”
And Mark Fox, now in his seventh year as Georgia’s coach, is also well-thought of in the Bluegrass State.
“I think he has a gravitas where you feel like it’s in good hands,” said Tipton, the dean of SEC basketball writers. “You don’t think it’s gonna blow up or the floor is going to fall out from underneath him.”
Indeed, Georgia is attempting to reach two straight NCAA tournaments for only the fourth time in school history. Fox is only the second coach to lead Georgia to consecutive 20-win seasons; the first was Tubby Smith, who was subsequently hired away by Kentucky.
But when you’re Kentucky, it takes a lot to impress. Mainly, beating them, which the Bulldogs haven’t done in three years, and haven’t done at Rupp Arena since 2009.
From Kentucky’s perch, the perception of Georgia basketball seems very similar to that around Athens: Good coaching, just not enough talent.
“I knew they had that one kid who was really athletic,” Willis said Monday. “I don’t even know if he’s still there. I think it was Gaines.”
Yes, Kenny Gaines. He’s still there.
“OK, he’s the only one I can really remember,” Willis said.
To be fair, according to several Kentucky scribes, that’s pretty similar for most other SEC teams. And interviews on Monday were conducted before the team went over the practice report.
Robic, pronunciation aside, was complimentary of the Bulldogs, who through the years have tended to give the Wildcats some close calls, even at Rupp.
“We were actually talking about it today: They’re always really solid, they really execute offensively how he (Fox) wants to play,” Robic said.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari has always been very complimentary of Fox’s coaching. Last year he called Fox “one of the toughest ones to go against that I’ve been (against) in 20-some years,” thanks to Fox’s preparation and tactical moves.
That’s not just Calipari being nice, according to Brett Dawson, who has also covered Kentucky for years.
“He doesn’t go out of his way, I don’t think, to praise a lot of guys as coaches, and he has done that with Fox,” said Dawson, who left last year to cover the New Orleans Pelicans for the New Orleans Advocate. “That probably has made some Kentucky fans kind of stand up and say, He knows what he’s doing as a coach, he’s a good X’s and O’s guy. Maybe he just doesn’t have the talent.”
For the Bulldogs and their fan base, their performance against then-No. 1 and unbeaten Kentucky last year – leading by nine with nine minutes to go, before falling by eight – is something to be proud about.
For the Wildcats, it was just another near-miss on the way to the Final Four, where Wisconsin finally got them.
This time around, Kentucky may be down (17-6 overall, and “only” ranked No. 22 in the AP poll), but the result is expected to be the same. The Wildcats are a 13-point favorite over the Bulldogs (13-8) as of Tuesday morning. Only four visiting teams have won at Rupp Arena over the past seven years.
“It was just one of them games,” Willis said of that close Kentucky win at Georgia last March. “We probably got complacent, thought we could just walk in and play this team. Stuff happens. But we fought back and won. Hopefully this time we’ll be prepared and expect stuff like that to happen.”