To even the most casual Georgia basketball fan, Saturday's SEC opener in Stegeman Coliseum against perennial power Kentucky is a big deal.
Make no mistake about that.
Call it a measuring stick or whatever you will, when you're playing a team as steeped in history and championships as the 10th-ranked Wildcats, it's not just another game.
Or is it?
During his pregame media session with reporters, head coach Mark Fox was asked that very question. His answer came as somewhat of a surprise.
"I think we know who we are now," Fox said. "But this is league play and we're playing a great team, so in that regard we will learn something that we haven't seen in a while."
Tipoff is set for 4 p.m. The game will be televised on the SEC Network.
The thought of opening up against the Wildcats (12-2) doesn't seem to face junior forward Trey Thompkins who is coming off a 26-point effort against Eastern Kentucky and looking forward to opening against John Calipari's Wildcats.
"I like it a lot, but I also realize that every night in the SEC is going to be like Saturday," he said. "It's great, specifically the Eastern Division because it's going to be a close race."
Georgia fans are obviously hoping for some early season excitement.
Saturday's contest has been sold out for weeks to watch this game betweem two teams that haven't lost in over a month.
The Wildcats come into play with seven straight victories, their last loss coming on Dec. 4 at North Carolina (75-73) while Georgia (11-2) has captured eight straight and is off to its best start since the 2002 team started with the same record as the current squad.
Georgia's last loss came just over six weeks ago to then No. 21-ranked Temple in the second-round of the Old Spice Classic in Orlando. The last time the Bulldogs won nine straight you have to go back to the 1982-1983 campaign when the eventual Final Four competitors began their season 9-0.
"We saw them against Notre Dame and if they had not gotten cold they would be 12-1; If they had beat Temple they'd be 13-0," Calipari said. "Mark has done a great job defensively and their players know how to play. It's going to be a tough challenge for us."
Fox said the teams' respective winning streaks hold little meaning as far as Saturday's game is concerned.
"The streak by both teams doesn't have an impact on how important the game is," Fox said. "It's important because it is the league opener and we want to start out on a good note. They've got a great team, a great program; there's going to be a lot of energy in the gym."
As usual, the Wildcats bring another incredibly talented team to Athens despite losing most of last year's squad to the NBA.
This year, it's freshmen Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones who are holding up the Kentucky mantle, averaging 18.3 and 17.1 points, respectively.
"(Knight) still has break down offensively, takes shots that he probably shouldn't and will turn the ball over. But he's gotten better defensively and when he starts defending as well as he needs to, I think you'll see this team take that next step up," Calipari said. "We've still got to get Terrence to play with more intensity and to be more physical. In practice, if we see him get out of his stance or play half-speed, we take him off the court and get him on the treadmill then after he completes what we call a 'System' we get him back on the court."
Because of the talent overhaul seen by the Wildcats, Fox said he and his assistants haven't wasted their time looking back at tape from last season when Kentucky beat Georgia by counts of 76-68 (in Athens) and 80-68 (in Lexington).
"We won't watch tape or do that at all," Fox said. "This team (Georgia) is real independent of last year's team because we are more mature because of the experience we had last year."
Fox also discounted the notion that somehow Kentucky's freshmen will be off their respective games while getting their first taste of SEC play.
"They're probably mature beyond their years because all of those kids have grown up in high-profile situations," Fox said. "We're more mature than last year, too, I know that. These are two good teams."
But Thompkins said the Bulldogs still have plenty of room to grow.
"We're happy with our team but we understand we've still got a lot of work to do to be successful in this league," he said. "Night in and night out got to be prepared and take every punch you can take in SEC play. We understand that."
As for Saturday, Thompkins said he and the Bulldogs are anxious for the chance to go out and prove just that.
"We go out and try to prove a point every night," Thompkins said. "We know how hard we work and the things we do; we just want to go out and show the world."
NOTES: Georgia has spent the past three weeks playing a 5-game diet of teams whose average RPI rating is 259. During that time, its own RPI rating has dropped from near 40 to its currentmark of 60, despite winning all five games. The Bulldogs are about to experience a large upgrade in schedule difficulty. Their next four opponents, beginning today with Kentucky, have an average RPI rating of 26.
Thompkins and Darius Miller of Kentucky spent much of the summer of 2009 as teammates on the United States Under-19 team, which won the gold medal at the World U19 tournament in New Zealand.
Last season, 13 of Georgia's 31 games were considered "close" by the following definition: Two-possession game inside the final minute of play. The Bulldogs were 5-8 in those games. This season, 10 of Georgia's 13 games thus far fit that definition, including the first eight, and the Bulldogs are 8-2 in those contests. Only the Arkansas State, High Point and Charleston Southern games did NOT following that theme. Five of those close games, in fact, were decided on the final possession.
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