ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, the network’s NCAA Tournament guru, has Kentucky currently placed in his “First Four Out” portion of the field, which implies that the Wildcats are riding the NCAA “Bubble” hard. A loss to the Georgia Bulldogs on Thursday night in Athens could certainly put a major damper on the Cats’ postseason hopes, meaning Coach Calipari’s team will probably be treating this game similarly to a playoff match-up.
However, the stakes in tonight’s game are pretty high for the Dawgs as well, who need a win to keep pace with Tennessee (10-7), LSU (9-8) and Arkansas (9-8) if they hope to avoid the dreaded 8-/9-seed game in this year’s SEC Tournament (UGA is in the 9-spot at the moment).
Since losing “Mr. Do-Everything” – freshman Nerlens Noel – Cal’s team has mustered just a 3-3 conference record (if you include the Florida game in which Noel went down with the knee injury). Noel anchored the Kentucky defense, averaging 4.4 blocks and nearly 10 rebounds a game. Over the past five games without Noel, the Cats have allowed SEC opponents to score 70 or more points in four of those games, which is definitely concerning since Kentucky had only allowed three league teams to post 70 points or more over the previous ten games.
Coach Cal’s team has not been able to get it together away from Rupp without the services of their big man, dropping road games at Tennessee and Arkansas (last Saturday). If the Cats want to dance this March, they will have to find a way to sneak out of Stegeman with a win on Thursday.
Offensively, Kentucky’s scoring is extremely balanced, with five players averaging over 8 points per game. Leading the way is freshman guard Archie Goodwin, who is netting a team-best 12.1 points per SEC contest.
For Georgia, Thursday’s game against Kentucky gives the Dawgs another chance to even up their overall record, which currently rests at 14-15. In addition, a victory over the Cats would greatly help UGA in its attempts to jockey for a slightly higher seed than 8 in next week’s SEC Tournament.
With Kentucky’s athleticism, I would be surprised if Kentavious Caldwell-Pope gets many good looks at the basket in this one. Coach Mark Fox will need more aggressive point guard play from freshman Charles Mann, who is coming off a career-high 18 points against Tennessee in game in which he repeatedly attacked the rim off the dribble.
Las Vegas is giving Kentucky a 3.5-point edge in this one, which may provide UGA with a little extra fuel leading up to the game.
While nearly 10,000 people packed into the Steg to see Tennessee last Saturday, I anticipate a near-capacity crowd Thursday night in what should be the most prestigious home game of the season.
Hopefully Georgia is ready.