ATHENS -- It’s a game that has been sold out since December, which was around the time basketball observers circled it on their calendar: The game Kentucky might lose.
ESPN is bringing one of its top crews, including analyst Jay Bilas. There’s a need for overflow seating in the press area. Georgia is used to this kind of attention for football.
For basketball, this isn’t normal.
And yet the halls at the Bulldogs’ practice facility Monday were as quiet as usual.
Sophomore forward Kenny Paul Geno walked barefoot across an empty practice court. Three other players and head coach Mark Fox walked into the interview room nonchalantly, as they have for every session.
“It’s a game that’s highly expected, and we understand that,” senior forward Nemanja Djurisic said. “But we’re focusing on the little things, like we have been.”
The enormity of the challenge, however, is obvious to the Bulldogs.
Fox called unbeaten Kentucky “without question the best basketball team in America,” not specifying college or the pros. Two days earlier, Fox had joked that he would ask the Atlanta Hawks for a scrimmage in order to prepare for the Wildcats. A night later, Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer texted back to say they could scrimmage at 11 a.m. on Monday. The Bulldogs had class, of course.
“They’re bigger than our team,” Budenholzer added about the Wildcats, according to Fox.
“That’s right,” Fox said. “So it probably wouldn’t do us a lot of good.”
Kentucky (29-0, 16-0 SEC) was a nine-point favorite over Georgia as of Monday afternoon. In their most recent game, the Wildcats blew out Arkansas, the SEC’s second-best team. Georgia (19-9, 10-6) has never in program history knocked off the nation’s No. 1 ranked team.
The small measure of confidence for the Bulldogs is that they hung with the Wildcats in the first matchup, last month at Rupp Arena, drawing within five points with a couple of minutes to go. That was without Marcus Thornton, Georgia’s leading scorer and rebounder.
But Fox has discounted the importance of that game, pointing out it wasn’t that close a game until late.
“What were we down, 700 at halftime?” Fox said.
That doesn’t mean Fox is being a defeatist. His team enters the game on a three-game winning streak and is in good shape for an NCAA tournament bid, no matter what happens Tuesday night.
“I said this the first game, Georgia doesn’t have to beat Kentucky to make the NCAA tournament,” Fox said. “Because if that was the standard, none of those teams would go either. But that’s not what we’re concerned with (Tuesday). We’re concerned with being able to play the best basketball that we can, because it is a special opportunity.”
Kentucky, with an imposing front line, is likely to rack up the points in the paint, and it will be tough for Thornton, Djurisic and the Bulldogs to score inside.
If the home team has any chance for the upset, it likely will hinge on outside shooting -- draining its own 3s and keeping Kentucky’s to a minimum -- and taking care of the ball, in order to prevent the Wildcats from scoring a lot of transition points.
The home crowd should help, too, even if Kentucky has a large chunk of fans for a road game, as it usually does.
It has been a tumultuous past month for the Bulldogs, who saw their postseason hopes sag after the two home losses to Auburn and South Carolina. Now they’re back on track, with a chance to play spoiler, although the odds are still long.
“It’s a team that’s been undefeated the whole season. It would be (something) that no one else did the whole season,” Djurisic said, not smiling or changing the tone of his voice. “They’re a great team, and everyone knows that, and they play very tough, and they’re an athletic team. But you know, it’s one team against another team. We do have a home-court advantage. We do have atmosphere behind us. A little emotion.
“But what you’re trying to do is be businesslike, and you really have to focus on the game and the same things you do all the time.”