ATHENS, Ga. — Despite its current hot streak, the Georgia basketball team will play the role of underdog once again this weekend.
The Bulldogs (10-7) are off to their best start since 2000, fueled in large part by an impressive 4-1 record in conference play that includes wins over Missouri, Arkansas and Alabama. Most recently, they blew out a struggling South Carolina squad 97-76, with five different Bulldogs reaching double digits in the group's strongest offensive performance of the season.
That win, however, came at home in front of 5,366 fans. If Georgia wants to continue its surprising SEC run on Saturday, it will have to come inside the hostile confines of Rupp Arena (capacity: 23,500) against the No. 13 Kentucky Wildcats. And while UGA has managed to beat a John Calipari-coached team twice under head coach Mark Fox (in 2010 and 2012), both victories came at home.
Winning on the road will be no small task.
"It's a hard place to play,” senior forward Donte Williams said. “You got like 22,000 fans there. It's just a place where we have to play well. We probably won't have the refs on our side. We probably won't get many calls. So we got to play mistake-free.”
Six of the team's seven losses this season have come on the road, including an ugly 72-50 defeat at Florida that was marred by 15 turnovers and a field-goal percentage of 33. The players hope they can use the game as a learning experience and stay poised this time around.
"I know that the Florida game we had a lot of turnovers. Lot of missed free throws, lot of turnovers, lot of fouling. We got to be mistake-free, limit our turnovers on the road," Williams said.
Winning four of the last five games, of course, has the UGA players feeling confident that they can repeat the type of upset performance they gave against Mizzou.
"It feels a little bit better to know that we're good and we're winning," sophomore guard Charles Mann said.
But can they handle Randle?
Atmosphere aside, the Bulldogs will have their work cut out for them on the court. Kentucky guards James Young, Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison are all averaging double figures, while 7-foot sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein brings a clear size advantage down low.
However, the clear game-changer for the Wildcats is forward Julius Randle, who has been nothing short of dominant this season. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound freshman has averaged 16.7 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, shooting over 54 percent from the floor, and brings a physicality to the paint that few can match. Even for a Georgia team that has started to find its footing defensively, Randle is tough to stop.
"Randle is so dominant physically that I'm not sure anybody matches up with him," Fox said. "Those three kids on the perimeter are having great seasons. They're different than they were a year ago."
"He's just a guy who's real physical," Williams said. "A guy that can drop it in the hole with a lot of force, and he can rebound the ball too."
Combined with the size of Cauley-Stein on the low end and scoring threats like Young on the perimeter (eight games over 15 points this season), Kentucky's attack should prove difficult for the Bulldogs to slow down.
The key, says Williams, will be rebounding and limiting second-chance points.
"We just got to defend. Try not to let them get any easy baskets, no deep catches down low, limit it to one shot, no easy tip-ins," he said.
For all of the obstacles standing in the way, the Georgia players know they've been playing their best basketball of the year. UGA has yet to lose the rebounding battle to an SEC opponent, and it enters Saturday's game having just shot 55 percent from the field and 55 percent from behind the arc against the Gamecocks.
"We're a pretty good 3-point shooting team," said Mann, who made a pair of 3-pointers in Wednesday's win. "It gave us a little bit of confidence. We knew we could shoot."
Considering Kentucky's scoring prowess and its tendency to outrebound opponents, the pressure could be on to keep the good shots coming.
"I'm not really worried about the size difference. But of course when you shoot the ball well, it opens up a lot more," Mann said.
It bears reminding: this is the same Georgia team that went 6-6 in non-conference play and had few expecting them to make much noise in the SEC. But now, the Bulldogs are feeling loose on the court and playing like a completely different team than the one that lost to George Washington three weeks ago.
Simply put, they're feeling self-assured. It might not be enough to knock off Kentucky, but that doesn't mean this game won't be closer than some think.
"We got nothing to lose," Mann said. "It's just a regular road game for us. Of course, it's going to be a hard battle."
Prediction: Kentucky 76, Georgia 70