After historic win over Memphis, Kentucky next for Georgia

Sahvir Wheeler is a basketball lifer.

He grew up playing in gyms all over greater Houston and the state of Texas as an AAU star. Long committed to Texas A&M, he backed out after coach Billy Kennedy was dismissed and signed with Georgia on coach Tom Crean’s promise that the Bulldogs would be playing big-time games in short order.

A few months later, Crean has made good on that promise. Three days after knocking off then-No. 9 Memphis on the road on CBS, the Bulldogs (10-3) play host to No. 14 Kentucky (10-3, 1-0 SEC) in a 9 p.m. ESPN game that has been sold out for months.

“As a competitor, this is the type of environment you want,” said Wheeler, a 5-foot-10 freshman who’s averaging 8.6 points and 5.3 assists a game off the bench. “We want big-time games on ESPN, late-night, prime-time basketball. This is the stuff you live for. This is something you love. I know I’m super excited.”

There was already a buzz around Georgia’s young team before it won 65-62 at Memphis, only the second road win over a ranked non-conference opponent in 115 seasons of basketball at UGA. What’s more, Georgia did it with arguably the youngest team in school history — there are nine freshmen and 10 newcomers on the roster.

But unlike a lot of coaches, Crean wasn’t preaching to the Bulldogs to put that game behind them.

“I don’t think you put it behind you; I think you build on it. Right?” Crean said before Monday’s practice. “You build on what a win like that does for you confidence-wise; you build on what it does for you spirit-wise. Again, we know we’re playing an extremely tough team. … We want to move forward, but we want to remember what that feeling felt like.”

Anthony “Ant Man” Edwards was the highlighted signee of what was ESPN's No. 5-ranked recruiting class and he leads Georgia in scoring at 18.4 points per game. But the Bulldogs are proving to be more than a one-man show.

In addition to Wheeler, freshman Toumani Camara has averaged just under 11 points over the last three games. Meanwhile, veteran Rayshaun Hammonds has blossomed with the surrounding talent. The 6-9 junior from Norcross has averaged nearly a double-double (15.2 points 9.7 rebounds) over the last four games.

“It’s going to be exciting and we’re going to be ready to play,” Hammonds said of Tuesday night's anticipated atmosphere. “We’re maturing. We had practice yesterday and I felt like everybody was locked in. The young guys know what it takes to win big games now.”

Crean showed last season that he knew how to create a special basketball atmosphere. Fans flocked to Stegeman Coliseum last season even though the Bulldogs only won eight games on their home floor — and 11 overall.

Georgia is now only one win shy of matching that 11-win total. Six of the Bulldogs' nine SEC games already are sold out, including this one, which was maxed before the season even started.

With ESPN’s Jay Bilas in town Monday watching practice as well as other national basketball analysts, there was a feeling Crean’s vision for Georgia basketball was being realized already.

“It’s all part of the process,” Crean said before the Bulldogs’ practice. “Kentucky sells out wherever they go. We’re excited about it; we’re excited that Jay Bilas, Karl Ravech, Marty Smith are covering it. I think that’s a big deal. But that’s all part of it. I’m happy for our team and our fans a chance to feel that.”

Of course, the Bulldogs’ youthful zest will be measured against the realities of facing a blue-blood program Kentucky. While the Wildcats, so far at least, haven’t proven to be the juggernaut everyone is so accustomed to seeing under coach John Calipari, they have all the resident parts and pedigree.

This time it’s Tyrese Maxey who enters as the new Kentucky star. The 6-3 guard, who joins Georgia’s Wheeler as standout freshmen from the state of Texas, is averaging 13.8 points an outing. As usual, the Wildcats feature a couple of “got-away Georgians” in sophomores Ashton Hagan and E.J Montgomery, who gave the Bulldogs fits last year.

The Bulldogs are ranked 36th in the latest NET rankings, but oddly did not move up after the road win at Memphis. Maybe a nationally-televised win over Kentucky will move the needle. But Crean insists respect is not what his team is looking for.

“It’s not about proving anything to America,” Crean said. “It’s about getting ready to play a great team, it’s about playing Kentucky, an outstanding team year-in and year-out. … It’s the next game on the schedule, and it’s a big one. But so is Saturday’s (against undefeated Auburn) and next Wednesday’s (against Tennessee).”