On the surface, Georgia would appear to be another in a decent string of beatable opponents rolling through Colonial Life Arena.
Following Wednesday’s 75-36 debacle at Florida, nothing is a given for USC entering Saturday’s game, especially the Bulldogs.
Georgia enters playing its best basketball of the season. The Bulldogs have won three of their past four games with the loss coming against Florida. But even that loss is deceiving, since it was a vast improvement over the previous time Georgia played the Gators.
Florida flattened Georgia by 33 points in their first meeting, but the Bulldogs put up a battle before falling 64-47 in Athens last week.
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“I think they’re playing their best basketball of the year,” USC coach Frank Martin said. “They’re the perfect example of why people jump to conclusions in November. They’re one of the youngest teams in the country.”
In other words, Georgia’s learning curve is accelerating as the season progresses.
“I just watched the Florida game and they look pretty good to me,” Martin said. “That’s why, as coaches, it’s so important we understand that you better have a little patience. You’ve just got to keep knocking on that door and stay consistent with your kids.”
The 59-52 victory at Texas A&M last Saturday was Georgia’s first road win of the season. Making the trip to USC is another step in the learning process, according to Georgia coach Mark Fox.
“Eventually, you get used to playing on the road,” he said. “Eventually, you get used to the different atmospheres and the opposing cheers and, eventually, you start to ignore all of that and just play.”
Georgia has ramped up its defensive intensity in recent weeks. That is evident in the Bulldogs’ three recent victories against LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn in which they allowed an average of 53 points.
“They’re long, they’re athletic (and) Mark has got them guarding, which is what his teams do,” Martin said. “They’re going to defend you. I think they’re a lot better now.”
Georgia will pose a frightening matchup issue in the form of guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The 6-5 sophomore is averaging 17.5 points and 6.6 rebounds from the off-guard position.
In the win against Auburn on Wednesday, Caldwell-Pope led the Bulldogs with 20 points and 10 rebounds. On his weekly radio show Thursday night, Martin said reining in Caldwell-Pope won’t involve guarding him as much as it will entail keeping the ball from reaching him.
Bruce Ellington likely will draw the duty of guarding Caldwell-Pope. He held Vanderbilt’s Kedren Johnson to three points, held Missouri’s Phil Pressey to six points and Arkansas’ BJ Young to seven.
“It all starts with a great point guard who is also a great wide receiver in Ellington,” Fox said. “He creates a great pace for their team, brings great intensity and they’re really playing hard.”
USC will travel to Kentucky on Tuesday before returning home for its lone two-game home stand of the SEC season. The Gamecocks will play host to Tennessee on Feb. 10 and LSU on Feb. 14.
WHO: USC (12-8, 2-5 SEC); Georgia (9-11, 3-4)
WHEN: 1:47 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Colonial Life Arena
TV: WOLO (ABC)
RADIO: WNKT 107.5 FM
SERIES: USC leads 50-48
COACHES: Frank Martin (129-62 in sixth season; 12-8 in first season at USC); Mark Fox (182-100 in ninth season; 59-57 in fourth season at Georgia)
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: In conference play, Georgia ranks last in the SEC in turnover margin and offensive rebounding. The Gamecocks rank seventh in turnover margin and second in offensive rebounding. … Georgia is fourth in the SEC in scoring defense (64.4 ppg) in league play, just better than USC’s 65.9 ppg. Georgia is one of the league’s better perimeter teams, connecting on 36.2 percent of their 3-point attempts in SEC play. ... In addition to leading his team in rebounding (6.6 per game), being second in the league in scoring (17.5) and second in 3-point field goals per game (2.4), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope trails LSU’s Anthony Hickey in steals per game, averaging 2.35.