Georgia Bulldogs seek winning formula for Florida rematch

ATHENS — Like all sports, Georgia men’s basketball is a results-oriented business. But as the Bulldogs encountered a rare mid-week bye in advance of Saturday’s game against archrival Florida, they tried to spend some time focusing on what they’ve done well the past several weeks this season.

A cynic might wonder what possibly could have gone right as the Bulldogs (14-10, 4-7 SEC) have lost five consecutive and seven of their past nine games in SEC play. But, in reality, Georgia has done quite a bit well during that stretch, including what occurred three weeks ago when it played the Florida Gators, the team it will host Saturday at Stegeman Coliseum (1 p.m., SEC Network).

The Bulldogs fell behind by 21 points in the second half of that game Jan. 27 in Gainesville, Fla. But they fought their way back not only to send the game into overtime but had a chance to win it in regulation. Ultimately, Georgia lost 102-98.

That loss has looked better-and-better with each passing game. The Gators (17-7, 7-4) have won six of their last seven games and logged wins over No. 10 Kentucky and No. 12 Auburn since facing the Dogs.

Georgia’s showing on the road versus Florida was not a fluke. Georgia had double-digit leads against both No. 15 Alabama and No. 11 South Carolina and led those two opponents for 56:55 of the 80 minutes.

“We’ve been competitive. We have,” second-year coach Mike White said. “I don’t think anybody’s pleased with our record, starting with me and our guys and our staff. We’d like to have a few more wins at this point, of course. That said, I thought we’d be a lot more competitive this year than we have been.”

If anything, the events of the past few weeks have only underscored the shortcomings that still need to be addressed. Namely, that’s size and depth of talent on the interior. Typically, Georgia has been getting hammered in the low post both on offense and defense. That has manifested itself in a lot of ways, most notably, rebounding margin (minus-1.79) and offensive and defensive field-goal percentages (.431 and .433, respectively).

But there have been significant stretches in games throughout the season that demonstrate Georgia’s ability to compete with some of the best teams in the country. That includes outscoring Florida 51-38 in the second half and establishing double-digit leads against league-leaders Alabama and South Carolina.

It’s a matter of sustaining.

“We’re right there in every game and that’s the hard part,” guard Noah Thomasson said in his weekly radio appearance on Athens radio station 960 The Ref on Friday. “If we were getting run out of the gym, that’d be one thing. But it’s been one-possession game after one-possession game after one-possession game. So, we just have to keep working on a couple of things, and I think we’re going to start getting some of these wins again.”

It helps to be back in the “The Steg,” where the Bulldogs are 11-3 this season and haven’t played in 14 days. Georgia is looking to sustain the momentum it has built at home with the student body this year. The first 750 fans who get there Saturday will receive replica jerseys from the Bulldogs last Sweet Sixteen season of 1996.

Moreover, they’ll have to find a way to slow the Gators’ balanced offensive attack. Florida features five players scoring at a double-digit pace, led by Walter Clayton Jr. (16.3 ppg) and Zyon Pullin (15.5 ppg). Also, there’s Tyrese Samuel at 13.1 ppg, Will Richard at 11.1 ppg and Riley Kugel at 10.8 ppg. It was Pullin (20 points, 7 rebounds) and 7-foot-1 sophomore center Micah Handlogten (23, 17) who have the Bulldogs fits in the last meeting.

But Georgia had some success inside as well in that last game. Center Russel Tchewa had 15 points and 11 rebounds. And who could forget RJ Melendez’s career performance? The 6-7 junior poured in a career-high 35 points to help mount the incredible second-half comeback. He was 6-of-10 from 3-point range.

Melendez has averaged only 6.5 points in the four games since, but at least he and everybody else knows of what he’s capable. Understandably, White won’t be counting on 30-plus from Melendez on Saturday.

“Playing from behind, playing with desperation, getting his confidence really going after making a couple of shots,” White said. “And they were a little cross-matched at times with ‘bigs’ on him and he took advantage. It’ll depend on matchups whether he has the ball tomorrow.”

Melendez has returned to a reserve role in recent games after a brief stint as a starter following that game. After going with the same lineup for most of the season, White found himself tweaking it a lot recently trying to find the right combination. He has deployed seven different starting lineups – including four in the past five games – featuring nine different players trying to find the right formula.

With only seven games remaining in the regular season, times is running out on experimentation.

“Battling, grinding it out,” White said of how his team spent the last week. “We’ve had some battles in practice. Defensively we’ve got a small margin, so our details have to be really good.”

Said Thomasson of facing Florida again: “It’s a big-time opportunity for us. We want to get a win and get back on the right track.