Georgia Bulldogs prepare for unpredictable Florida Gators

Georgia basketball player Sahvir Wheeler (2) during a game against Kentucky at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Wednesday, January 20, 2021. (Photo by Tony Walsh)
Georgia basketball player Sahvir Wheeler (2) during a game against Kentucky at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Wednesday, January 20, 2021. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

Credit: Tony Walsh

Credit: Tony Walsh

ATHENS -- Welcome to Week 4 of the SEC basketball season, also known as “Who Knows What the Heck’s Going to Happen?”

That certainly has been the case for the Georgia Bulldogs, who are coming off a win over Kentucky on Wednesday and are getting ready to face an unranked Florida team (7-4, 4-3 SEC) that, with three of its own starters out, just beat No. 6 Tennessee by 26 points.

To say it has been an unpredictable season would be an understatement. But count the Bulldogs among those most eager to see what’s next. Georgia (9-4, 2-4) enters Saturday’s 2 p.m. home tipoff (ESPN2) with mounting confidence and growing anticipation.

“It’s just the year, absolutely,” Georgia coach Tom Crean said of all the incalculable outcomes. “It just shows how deep Florida is. They might be as consistently deep as anybody in the SEC. They just keep coming at you in waves. … But the unpredictability is strong (in the SEC) this year. What happens, and it has happened to us, is you can lose your spirit quick in these games, and you can’t have that happen. You’ve got to continue to fight back.”

Crean was able to convince his team of that fact after it lost back-to-back lopsided games to Auburn and Arkansas. In each case, Georgia seemingly gave up after getting behind by double digits and ended up getting blown out.

But that wasn’t the case in the past two games. Against Kentucky, the Bulldogs outscored the Wildcats 7-0 over the final 109 seconds to secure a 63-62 victory. P.J. Horne’s layup off a Sahvir Wheeler inbounds pass with 1.3 seconds remaining was the difference.

Don’t be surprised if it comes down to the last possession against the Gators, too. Traditionally, the Georgia-Florida rivalry has been an unpredictable one.

While the Gators have dominated the series lately, the games usually are close and fiercely contested. Florida won both contests last season to pull ahead 116-105 in UGA’s most-played basketball series. The 221 meetings are more than even Georgia Tech (196) and Auburn (192). The Bulldogs have a 63-41 edge in games played at home.

Georgia had won three of four before last season. Those games were decided by an average of seven points, including one Bulldogs’ win in overtime. Georgia was set to play the Gators in the second round of the SEC Tournament last year in Nashville when the season abruptly ended because of the emerging coronavirus pandemic.

Topping the to-do list for the Bulldogs to win Saturday’s game is to take care of the basketball.

“They’re so good with their pressure,” Crean said. “We cannot be giving them live-ball turnovers. They really, really want to force the tempo. They play as many different defenses as anybody in the league. It’s to confuse you and get you out of character, and we can’t let that happen.”

Georgia showed improvement in that area against the Wildcats. Coming in averaging more than 17 turnovers per game, the Bulldogs committed only 11 on Wednesday.

As for the Gators, Keyontae Johnson, the preseason SEC Player of the Year, has been out of action since collapsing unconscious in a game in early December. He was averaging 16 points per game at the time. Right now, senior Tre Mann leads the team in scoring at 13.8 ppg.

Florida’s Nos. 3 and 4 scorers, Colin Castleton (12.6) and Scottie Lewis (11.0), missed the Tennessee game. Their status for Saturday is unknown. The Gators average 76.6 points per game.

Georgia is averaging 78.5. The Bulldogs, a team featuring eight newcomers, are led by the latest-arriving newcomer, freshman K.D. Johnson, with a 15.0 average in his four games. The Bulldogs remain one of the nation’s most balanced offensive teams, with seven players averaging 9.5 ppg or more.

Saturday’s outcome is predictably unpredictable.

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