After long layoff, Georgia Bulldogs face Notre Dame

ATHENS – When Georgia tips off against Notre Dame on Sunday at State Farm Arena (5:35 p.m., ESPN2) in a Holiday Hoopsgiving matchup, it will have been 12 days since the Bulldogs last played a game.

As some might recall, that last outing didn’t go so well. The Bulldogs (7-3) lost to archrival Georgia Tech 79-77 at McCamish Pavilion, giving up a late lead in the process.

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That stinging disappointment was followed by a short break to prepare for and complete final exams – then, a whole bunch of practice.

That was both good and bad, depending on one’s perspective.

“We’ve been going hard the last couple of days,” junior guard Kario Oquendo said. “We just got everybody back. … We’ve just been focusing on ourselves, trying to get better.”

“You’re never ‘off,’” junior center Frank Anselem said. “We’ve always got to come in here and do something. Even if it’s just coming in and sitting in the locker room for a while, you’ve got to be here. But finishing exams is like a big weight off our shoulders.”

For Georgia coach Mike White, the timing of the “break” couldn’t have been better.

“Very much a needed opportunity to get healthy, both from a physical standpoint, and obviously we suffered a bunch of illness there for a little while,” White said. “To get rest, to be able to focus solely on academics there for a few days, was good. We were a little rusty when we came back a couple of days ago. But yesterday we were really sharp, probably as good as we’ve been.”

More than anything, the time afforded the Bulldogs a chance to get medically well. The loss to Tech probably should come with an asterisk. Three contributors were unable to participate in Jaxon Etter, Jusaun Holt and freshman standout Kyeron Lindsay.

And while Georgia had another nine players to compete with, many of them were experiencing either the beginning stages or the end stages of a flu strain that worked its way through the team. Oquendo said some players since have been diagnosed with and recovered from COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Tech was Oquendo’s first game back from a knee contusion sustained in a collision with Anselem in practice. That followed an early bout of tendinitis for the team’s second-leading scorer (13.9 ppg). In the interim, the Bulldogs welcomed the return of forward Jailyn Ingram from a yearlong knee injury.

Finally this week, the whole squad is back together.

“Unless something happens in the next few hours at today’s practice, we’re at full strength for the first time in a long, long time,” White said Thursday.

“We need everybody on our team to be successful,” Oquendo said. “As you saw against Georgia Tech, we were just one or two plays away. If one or two of those guys could have been there, maybe we could have made those plays.”

Whether that will be enough for the Bulldogs to contend with Notre Dame is another question. That will get answered Sunday.

The Fighting Irish (7-3) are in their 23nd season under coach Mike Brey. Notre Dame has won 65% of its games (479-262) since he came aboard, including 24 last season.

White is very familiar with Brey. His brother, Danny White, played for Brey at Notre Dame. And their father, Kevin White, hired Brey as the Fighting Irish’s athletic director.

“Arguably the greatest hire of his incredible career,” Mike White said Thursday. “I’m not overly eager to play Mike Brey; I don’t know who is. But it’s just a program I’ve got a ton of respect for.”

The teams are built markedly different. In part because of the aforementioned maladies, the Bulldogs have used seven different starting lineups in their 10 games. In contrast, the Irish have started the same five in all 10 of their contests. And they don’t play many other players besides.

Notre Dame is led by 6-10, 230-pound graduate student Nate Laszewski, who averages 14.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, but all five regulars average double-figures in scoring. Notre Dame is one of only six Power-5 teams with seven or fewer players playing double-figure minutes.

Georgia, meanwhile, is the only team in the country with 12 players averaging double-digit minutes. The Bulldogs’ bench has outscored the opposing reserves 263-109.

White said part of that is a function of trying to figure out exactly how he wants Georgia to play.

“We’re still searching ourselves,” the Bulldogs’ first-year coach said. “If we were just dead set on we’ve got to play really, really fast and we’ve got to play a bunch of guys, we’d sell out to it. But I’m not sure that we’ve made that decision, or how many we’re playing or how fast we’re playing. Our tempo is a little faster than theirs, but we’ve also struggled when we’ve played faster.

“We’re trying to find that happy medium of how many we’re playing, how many minutes guys are getting, what our rotation is and what exactly is our best tempo offensively and defensively.”

What they’re doing so far at least represents an improvement. Georgia won six games in November, which matched the win total of the entire 2021-22 season.

Georgia is 2-1 all time against the Irish in basketball. The Bulldogs got 16 points from freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to beat Notre Dame 61-57 in the CBE Progressive Classic in November 2011 in Kansas City. The Irish won the other two meetings, 89-83 in double overtime in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando in 2010 and 88-85 in the Nike Shootout in Atlanta in 1994.

“It’s a big test,” said Anselem, who played Notre Dame last season as a sophomore at Syracuse. “We kind of missed out on a great opportunity last week against Georgia Tech, but this is another time to bounce back against Notre Dame. It’s in Atlanta, which feels like a home game for us. We’ve just got to go out and kick butt.”

Said Oquendo: “I’ve never played Notre Dame, but I’ve heard so much about them, it’ll be good to play them.”