LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Georgia basketball head coach Mark Fox was pretty sure he was coming down with a cold Friday afternoon. Starting forward Donte’ Williams had a runny nose. Starting guard Kenny Gaines was in the training room getting his knees iced.
Despite all that, it was a team that had to feel pretty good as it departed for Kentucky later that evening.
Yes, the Bulldogs are heavy underdogs against the 14th-ranked Wildcats, who once again are stocked with soon-to-be NBA draft picks. Kentucky is projected to win by 20 points by the website www.realtimerpi.com.
But a look at the SEC standings shows that Georgia and Kentucky are tied for second place, both at 4-1. A game that looked like a walkover at the beginning of this month is at least more interesting because of the way Georgia has performed since SEC play began.
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“I know that everybody knows that we can play with anybody,” Williams said. “If we defend well, rebound well, make our free throws, we can compete with anybody. So we feel pretty good coming into the game.”
SEC expansion created some oddities to the schedule. Kentucky is not visiting Athens this season, so this will be the Bulldogs’ only shot at the Wildcats unless they meet in the SEC tournament.
Georgia did not play at Rupp Arena last year, so the team’s sophomores, including key players Charles Mann, Gaines and Brandon Morris, have never played there.
That also means those sophomores have never lost to Kentucky. Georgia won last year’s game, and in fact, the Bulldogs have beaten Kentucky nine times in the past 12 years.
But winning at Rupp Arena -- which the Bulldogs haven’t done in Fox’s five seasons at Georgia -- is a whole different matter. Kentucky has won 20 in a row at home, including its past 12 SEC games.
“It’s a hard place to play at,” Williams said. “You’ve got like 22,000 fans there; it’s just a place where we’ve gotta play well. We’re probably not gonna have the refs on our side; we’re probably not gonna get many calls. So we’ve gotta play mistake-free.”
Fox said he didn’t talk much to his team about the challenge of playing at Rupp Arena. Part of the reason for that was that he didn’t have time. Wednesday’s win over South Carolina ended late, and the team only had one full day in Athens, with Friday being a travel day.
Fox also didn’t have crowd noise piped into Thursday’s practice, something he has done in the past. He’s trying to make the game just about basketball and not the environment.
“I don’t think any of their fans are gonna block a shot. But they are gonna change the atmosphere in the arena,” Fox said. “What it comes down to is us being composed enough to manage that and play the right way.”
The Bulldogs (10-7 overall) didn’t do that in their most recent road trip, as they were pasted by No. 6 Florida. Looking back, Georgia’s players said they were just undone by the atmosphere -- junior forward Nemanja Djurisic said it was a tougher place to play than Rupp Arena -- which led to too many turnovers.
“We’ve got to play with a level of composure that we did not play with at Florida,” Fox said. “And that’s across the board; that’s not just one guy’s responsibility. We all have to grow as competitors and learn how to play in an atmosphere like this.”
And then there’s the talent gap.
Kentucky (14-4) is once again loaded with players who would be in the NBA right now if not for the league’s age limit. The website www.draftexpress.com currently projects three Kentucky players -- Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein and James Young -- to go among the top 14 this summer.
Randle, a 6-foot-9 forward, has 11 double-doubles and is averaging 10.6 rebounds per game. Cauley-Stein is a 7-0 forward. And when the team needs outside shooting or fast-break scores, it can turn to Young and Andrew and Aaron Harrison, who are both 6-6.
But the Bulldogs are used to going up against teams that are considered to be more talented. And they’re used to being road underdogs.
“It’s a normal feeling. Many times when we go on the road, people don’t give us a chance against anyone,” Djurisic said before correcting himself. “Not anyone, but against the top teams. It gives us a great pleasure to play, to compete, to show everyone wrong, to prove them wrong. And just to compete. Kentucky’s a great team, and we really can’t wait to step on the court with them and see who’s better.”