ATHENS — As the Georgia men’s basketball team (1-1) prepares to host High Point (3-1) on Thanksgiving Eve, here are five things you need to know about the Bulldogs’ third game of the season:
1. KENNY GAINES AND THE OFFENSE
The Bulldogs are coming off a win largely reliant on the Co-SEC Player of the Week: Kenny Gaines scored 35 points against Murray State last Saturday.
The rest of the team was 7-39 from the field.
Gaines’s performance was a career-high coming at a crucial time for the Bulldogs.
“I’m just trying to play within myself,” Gaines said. “[I] don’t try to shoot to get 37, 36 next game just because I had 35. First things first, just want to get the win.”
Heading into the rest of the season, a point of emphasis for the Bulldogs was improving free throws, which added up quickly in their season opener. As a team, Georgia is 49-74 (.66.2 percent) from the line this season. Not all that shy of what the Bulldogs did last year, shooting 69.2 percent, but not where they aim to be.
“I think we just have to be more mentally attached when we go to the line,” junior guard J.J. Frazier said. “One free throw down the stretch could cost us the game.”
The majority of the Bulldogs’ scoring comes from veteran guards who know the challenge of starting off a non-conference schedule in a sloppy fashion but ending with a trip to the NCAA tournament. It’s the in-between they have to manage.
“We’re really confident in the team and humble and hungry to get better. And just to prove ourselves throughout the season,” senior guard Charles Mann said.
2. DEFENSIVE STRUGGLES
For all that, coach Mark Fox’s first criticism on Tuesday was his his team’s defense.
Defensive gaps surfaced in the first game against Chattanooga, when Georgia allowed the Mocs to make 12 shots from beyond the arc. The defense improved against Murray State, but the team that led the conference in defensive rebounds last season (27.3 per game) feels it has yet to find its groove.
“We’re trying to get better every week. Every time out,” Fox said. “I think there’s a lot of growth, obviously, with five freshmen on the roster. There’s a lot of growth on this team that’s possible and hopefully we can take some steps forward in certain areas. I haven’t been pleased with our defenses. I don’t think offensively we are anywhere near where we can be one day so there’s a lot we can improve on.”
Mann echoed that sentiment.
“We’re just not in the right rhythm right now,” Mann said. “And I feel like with a couple more games into the season, we’ll be fine.”
3. HOME FOR THE HOLIDAY
This time last year, the team was in New York City, preparing to play Gonzaga in the NIT Season Tip-Off tournament.
Staying in town to play gives the players a chance to enjoy home court advantage and enjoy the mellow atmosphere around campus.
“We’ve got a home game so you can’t ask for anything better than that,” Gaines said. “It actually makes it a little bit easier to focus on the game because you really don’t have anything to worry about except just playing, coming to practice and eating. It kind of just makes life a little bit easier.”
The team will practice Thursday morning, then go to the Fox’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, something the coach his wife have done in years past.
“Cindi is used to that load. Which is no small endeavor as you can imagine,” Fox said.
The team will travel Friday to play Seton Hall in Newark, N.J. — the team’s only away game before opening conference play in January with an away trip to Florida.
4. THE OPPONENT
Once again it’s not an easy out: High Point was picked to win the Big South Conference and is coming to Athens off three straight wins.
Big man John Brown, like Gaines, will come into Wednesday’s game as a conference player of the week after his dominating performances over Drexel and Western Kentucky.
“It’s hard to average 20 a night and he’s done it a couple years in a row essentially,” Fox said. “He’s a terrific player. Explosive and versatile.”
Brown, a 6-foot-8, 210-pound fifth-year senior from Jacksonville, Florida, was also Big South preseason Player of the Year for the third-straight season.
Beyond Brown, the Panthers have two seniors— forward Lorenzo Cugini and guard Adam Weary — averaging double-digit scoring.
“They are much older and mature and just know how to play together,” Mann said. “They have great chemistry. So it’s going to be a battle.”
High Point is one of just six programs nationally to have won three consecutive regular season conference titles.
Should High Point take home a victory, it will mark head coach Scott Cherry’s 100th career win.
–Freshman center Derek Ogbeide’s timetable for return is still uncertain. He sustained a shoulder injury in practice, forcing him to miss the past two games.
–The Bulldogs first game of the season was an overtime loss to Chattanooga, a loss that seemed quite ugly at the time, but may have been softened on Saturday when Chattanooga beat Illinois at home.