Georgia basketball player Anthony Edwards (5) during the Bulldogs’ game against SMU at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

Stars collide as Georgia travels to No. 9 Memphis

For the Georgia Bulldogs, the new year starts with Saturday’s road game at No. 9 Memphis (12-1), followed by a 9 p.m. tipoff Tuesday against the 14th-ranked Wildcats (9-3) in Athens, then back on the road Jan. 11 to face No. 6-ranked and currently undefeated Auburn (12-0). The games will be televised on CBS, ESPN and ESPN2, respectively.

The Bulldogs (9-3) certainly aren’t looking at it as an intimidating stretch, or even a challenging one. In fact, they’re not looking at it as a stretch at all.

This is the kind of meal that must be eaten one bite at a time.

“We’re centered on this game; there’s no talk about the next game,” Georgia coach Tom Crean said before Friday afternoon’s practice, which preceded a stormy jet flight to Memphis. “We’re certainly working ahead as coaches, but not with the team. We’ve always been locked into what we’re doing, whether it’s Austin Peay, whether it was Georgia Southern or now it’s Memphis. You stay locked in.”

The Bulldogs will do well to focus all their attention on the Tigers, who are looking good in Year 2 under coach Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. The well-known NBA star and Memphis alum quickly has led the Tigers back to the forefront of college basketball and has them on a 10-game winning streak heading into Saturday’s 1 p.m. contest.

Led by fabulous freshmen Precious Achiuwa of Queens, N.Y., and D.J. Jeffries of Olive Branch, Miss., Memphis is averaging 80.6 points per game and winning by an average margin of 18.5 points. The Tigers’ lone setback was to No. 14 Oregon 82-74 on the road in early November.

Like Georgia, Memphis is doing it with a very young team of elite freshmen. While the Bulldogs had the nation’s No. 5-ranked recruiting class, led by guard Anthony “Antman” Edwards, the Tigers inked the consensus No. 1 class. And they’re playing without the top player in that group -- James Wiseman of Memphis -- who was ruled ineligible for multiple games by the NCAA and opted to turn pro.

“They’re very, very, very talented,” Crean said. “Penny’s an excellent coach with a great staff. They play extremely fast; they’re scoring 30 percent of their points in transition; they create a lot of turnovers; very, very athletic, very dynamic, mix their defenses well. They trap and press and put a ton of pressure on you.”

That will put a premium on the Bulldogs to take care of the basketball, rebound and get back on defense. Those three areas have not been strong suits, thus far.

But Georgia brings a lot to the table as well. After some uneven performances in the first few weeks of the season, the Bulldogs’ 10 newcomers seem to have all settled into their respective roles in Crean’s positionless-basketball system.

Edwards continues to be the leading scorer (18.8 ppg) and marquee act. But the emergence of freshman Sahvir Wheeler as a penetrating ball distributor along with more consistent efforts from veterans such as Tyree Crump and Rayshaun Hammonds have proved to be a steadying influence.

Hammonds was a teammate of Memphis sophomore Lance Thomas at Norcross High, and they remain best of friends.

“It’s gonna be fun, it’s going to be competitive and we’ve been waiting on a challenge,” said Hammonds, who has led the Bulldogs in scoring in the past three games (16.0 ppg). “We’re ready for it. We’ve been practicing hard and staying together for this whole ride, so we’ll be ready.”

They better be. Memphis has the 29th best winning percentage in college basketball history, and the Tigers are notoriously vicious in the FedEx Forum, where they’re a revered presence in Tennessee’s second-largest city.

“They’re all going to be tall tasks for us,” said Crean, who was 11-21 in his first season with the Bulldogs. “This is really like a league game for us; it’s the opening of league play (this weekend). We just happen to be playing at Memphis on CBS. So it’s a huge game because it’s the next game we’re in, and they’re an outstanding, highly ranked team. … It will be one of the best environments these guys play in all year.”

Edwards is certain to get a lot of attention, both from CBS and the raucous Memphis fan base. With Wiseman out, he’s now the highest-ranked freshman recruit in a game littered with blue-chippers. Edwards scored just nine points in the last outing against Austin Peay and is averaging 17 in the six games since pouring in 37 against then-No. 3 Michigan State in November in Hawaii.

“He’s got to play within himself, and we’ve got to continue to help him evolve his game in these types of situations,” Crean said of Edwards. “This is not a solo game; the ball has got to move. His motor’s got to run high, and it’s got to run high from start to finish. It’s time now for him to be consistent with that. He’s 12 games in.”

Georgia has met Memphis just twice in basketball, winning 70-68 in the semifinals of the 1996 Rainbow Classic in Hawaii and losing 82-71 in the old Cotton States Classic in Atlanta in 1986.

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