Georgia hopes to stay hot, shoot down Kentucky

Georgia basketball player K.D. Johnson (0) celebrates during game against Ole Miss Jan. 16, 2021, in Oxford, Miss. (Joshua McCoy/Ole Miss Athletics)
Georgia basketball player K.D. Johnson (0) celebrates during game against Ole Miss Jan. 16, 2021, in Oxford, Miss. (Joshua McCoy/Ole Miss Athletics)

Credit: Ole Miss Athletics

Credit: Ole Miss Athletics

ATHENS — Somewhere between what Georgia did at Ole Miss on Saturday and what it has done rest of the season is what it really is when it comes to shooting the basketball.

But if the Bulldogs can come close to reproducing their most recent offensive effort on a regular basis, they’ll be in position to beat Kentucky on Wednesday and perhaps rack up a few more SEC wins as well.

Of course, just beating the Wildcats would be a big deal. Georgia hasn’t done that since 2013, losing 14 in a row. At 4-8 (3-2 SEC), Kentucky appears as vulnerable as it has been in a long while.

Then again, the Bulldogs (8-4, 1-4 SEC) just recently logged their first conference win. They’re are coming off a 78-74 win over the Rebels in Oxford. In that game, the Bulldogs posted season-high shooting percentages from the floor (.587), 3-point range (.600) and the free-throw line (.882). Their overall field-goal percentage of .587 was the fifth-best in a road game in the past 21 seasons.

Obviously, Georgia can’t be expected to shoot like that every time out. But the Bulldogs actually have shown improvement since conference play began. After shooting below 30 percent from 3-point range for most of the season, UGA is up to 37.5 percent in four SEC games and 45.5 percent overall.

“It’s extremely important,” coach Tom Crean said of continuing to shoot well. “It’s a combination of getting better looks and K.D. (Johnson) being in there certainly helps us. We also made 12 3′s at LSU (on Jan. 6), and the ball was moving. When we’re getting good ball movement, we’re getting good cutting and we’re getting purposeful scoring.”

Johnson definitely is making a different. The 6-foot-1 freshman from Atlanta was unable to play until a week ago because of an NCAA certification issue. All he did in the two games since is average 17.5 points and shoot 66.7 percent from 3-point range (6-of-9). That earned Johnson SEC freshman of the week honors.

Overall, offense hasn’t really been an issue for the Bulldogs. They’re averaging 77.8 points per game.

Where Georgia needs to shore up is on defense. SEC opponents are shooting nearly 50 percent (49.4) against the Bulldogs They’re giving up 89 points per game.

Enter Kentucky.

In some ways this is a typical Kentucky team in that features three projected first-round draft picks in freshmen Brandon Boston of Norcross, Terrence Clarke and Isaiah Jackson. On the other hand, it has been three decades since the Wildcats entered Stegeman Coliseum with a losing record.

The concern in Lexington is this could be Kentucky’s first team to finish with a losing record since 1989. The main reason is its inability to score. The Wildcats arrive in Athens with the SEC’s worst team shooting percentage at 41.8 and average only 67.4 points per game.

Of this, Georgia’s Crean is understandably wary.

“I don’t think we’re playing their record; I think we’re playing Kentucky,” he said. “They won three (SEC games) in a row right out of the gate. We know what they’re fully capable of.”

Among the Wildcats’ conquests are a double-overtime road win over the same Mississippi State team that beat Georgia in Athens and another road win at Florida. Kentucky lost its past two games at home, against Alabama (85-65) and Saturday at Auburn (66-59).

What’s keeping the Wildcats in games is their defense. SEC teams are shooting only 40.4 percent against them.

That has a lot to do with Kentucky’s size, or “length” as Crean and other basketball coaches refer to it. The Wildcats feature seven players that are 6-7 or taller, including a 7-footer among four that are 6-9 or taller.

Georgia remains one of the smaller teams in the SEC, with 6-8 sophomore Toumani Camara logging the majority of frontcourt responsibility.

“I think we’ll see a lot more post-up,” Crean said. “… They bring a lot of weaponry to the floor.”

On offense, at least, so does Georgia. The Bulldogs remain one of the nation’s more balanced teams, with players averaging 9.5 points or more. Until P.J. Horne recently dropped below 10 per game (9.6) Georgia was the only Division I program with six players averaging double-figure scoring.

Johnson’s presence has only enhanced that profile. But Crean said it’s important that the Bulldogs remain balanced and therefore “hard to guard.”

“Maybe it was different last year when we had Anthony Edwards, but this is the way it has to be this year,” he said. “This has got to be a balanced team. The moment somebody comes in and thinks they have to carry the load or do this or do that, that’s when we’re not very good. We’re not built that way.”

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