ATHENS — Corey Butler was in Nashville, Tenn., the night before Georgia’s game against Vanderbilt when he heard about what Kentucky’s Jodie Meeks had done. Butler and roommate Trey Thompkins turned on the television just to find out if it was real.
As they watched highlights of Meeks draining one shot after another en route to a Kentucky school record 54 points in a win at Tennessee, the reality of the challenge ahead began to sink in. This would be Butler’s man for the Wildcats’ game today against the Bulldogs in Athens.
“It was a tremendous shooting night for him, and we’re going to have to try to put a halt on that and keep him down in the teens hopefully,” Butler said.
While Meeks and the Wildcats (13-4, 2-0 SEC) present an impressive obstacle for Georgia’s tenacious defense, the difference in the game could be whether the Bulldogs’ offense can find enough buckets to keep pace.
Georgia (9-8, 0-2) is riding a four-game losing streak that culminated Wednesday with a 50-40 loss to Vanderbilt in which the Bulldogs shot just 33 percent. Georgia has made just 40 percent of its field goals in the four losses, but head coach Dennis Felton isn’t ready to call the offense a failure.
“I’d characterize it more as really, really tough defensive performances,” he said. “Vanderbilt has been really good at that all year. I was really happy to see our defense and rebounding stepped up the way we’ve been wanting it to. It made for a heck of a defensive battle.”
To that end, Georgia did make some improvements against Vanderbilt.
After poor play on the boards led to second-half losses against Georgia Tech and Tennessee in their previous two losses, the Bulldogs managed a 30-28 edge in rebounding against the Commodores, including an 11-5 edge on the offensive end, while holding Vanderbilt to just 40 percent shooting.
“I am working really hard right now to do everything I can to help our young team understand that we had a lot more to feel good about after (the Vanderbilt game) than the three previous losses,” Felton said. “They’re young and naïve and they need my help understanding that.”
Georgia’s defensive will have to be every bit as tenacious against Kentucky today if it hopes to slow Meeks, who is averaging nearly 26 points per game so far this season.
While his 54-point night against Tennessee was filled with highlight-reel shots, Meeks has been the catalyst all season for a Wildcats team that has won 13 of 15 after dropping its first two games of the year.
“This game wasn’t the first explosion that he’s had,” Felton said. “He’s done it before.”
Meeks won’t be Kentucky’s only weapon.
Sophomore forward Patrick Patterson has nearly averaged a double-double this season, racking up 18.4 points and 9.4 rebounds per game while playing stingy defense.
“Kentucky is a really hard-nosed, gritty, tough team,” Felton said. “That’s what makes them good.”
While Kentucky seems to be hitting its stride after a rough start to the year, Georgia is still desperately trying to find its identity.
The Bulldogs have held second-half leads in three of their past four losses and have been within striking distance in each game. Without a proven scorer like Meeks or Patterson to rely on, however, things have fallen apart down the stretch each time. Against Vanderbilt, Georgia’s top two offensive weapons, Thompkins and senior Terrance Woodbury, were a combined 7-of-27 from the floor, while the point guards struggled to run the offense, leading to 19 turnovers in the game.
“Consistency is the big word that we’re trying to find,” sophomore guard Zac Swansey said. “We’ll have different guys step up — which is not a bad thing — but if we can get more consistent from everyone around, that would help our game a lot more.”
While Felton said there is still plenty to be encouraged by despite the losing streak, he admits there is a danger, too, that his young team could grow accustomed the late losses.
So while the task today won’t be a simple, Swansey said his team is desperately in need of a victory, regardless of how they go about getting it.
“We’re searching for any way to get a win. Our last four games have been a tough four losses. They were all winnable games, and it’s very disappointing not to get any wins out of those four. Going 0-2 in the conference is tough. We’ve just got to find a way to rebound against Kentucky and see if we can find a way to get a win at home.”