Hosting Alabama, Georgia Bulldogs’ season at a crossroad

Georgia guard RJ Melendez (15) has been a force coming off the bench for the Bulldogs. He scored a career-high 35 in Georgia's last outing on the road against Florida. (Kari Hodges/UGA Athletics)

Credit: Kari Hodges/UGAAA

Credit: Kari Hodges/UGAAA

Georgia guard RJ Melendez (15) has been a force coming off the bench for the Bulldogs. He scored a career-high 35 in Georgia's last outing on the road against Florida. (Kari Hodges/UGA Athletics)

ATHENS — Georgia’s basketball season is at a crossroad. Close won’t be good enough anymore. The Bulldogs need wins. Only good, old-fashioned “W’s” will do.

They’re there for the taking, starting with Wednesday night’s appointment with Alabama.

The Crimson Tide (14-6, 6-1 SEC) arrives in Athens ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press poll but playing at a stratosphere higher than that. Coming off a 109-point output against LSU in Tuscaloosa on Saturday night, not only does Alabama lead the SEC in scoring (89.7 ppg), but it also moved into first place in the league standings.

The good news is the Tide has to play Georgia at Stegeman Coliseum. That’s a different proposition this season. The Bulldogs (14-6, 3-3) have been a load for visiting teams, winning 11 of their 12 games on their home court this season. The only blemish came against No. 5 Tennessee, and Georgia led that one by 11 points with five minutes to play.

So, bring it on, or so the Bulldogs say.

“The Steg has been a fortress this year,” senior Frank Anselem-Ibe said Tuesday. “We’re going to give them our best.”

Said guard Noah Thomasson: “I think it’s huge (being back at home). Hopefully the fans will come in and make it challenging for them, but it’s been tough for a lot of teams to come into Stegeman and beat us on our home floor. Tennessee did it, but it was a 12-round fight.”

Actually, all of Georgia’s games have been go-the-distance competitions, home or away. On Saturday, the Bulldogs found themselves down 21 points at Florida six minutes into the second half. Yet they fought their way back and tied the score at 85-85 with a chance to win on the last play of regulation. As it went, Georgia turned the ball over on that last possession and lost in overtime, 102-98.

But Bulldogs’ reputation as a resilient, never-say-die team was further galvanized. Georgia fought back from a 28-point deficit to lose to Kentucky by nine in Rupp Arena on Jan. 20 and came back from 17 down to beat Florida State 68-66 in Tallahassee in late November.

Now, with 11 conference games to go, there is no more room for good efforts or close calls. Sure, Georgia gets street cred for having played Florida and Kentucky tough on the road. But as honorable as those performances were, they were, in the end, only defeats.

Enter Bama. Pure and simple, the Crimson Tide represents another Quad-1 opportunity. Georgia needs to get the win while the getting’s good.

“We’re just trying to learn from each game, win or lose,” coach Mike White said before Georgia practiced Tuesday. “Obviously, we let an opportunity we had a chance to capitalize on get away from us in Gainesville. That said, with 10 minutes left in the game, no one would have thought our guys would be in position to do that. …

“We’ve got a bunch of opportunities ahead of us. We’ve just got to continue to work.”

There’s no grading on the curve for effort, at this point. Georgia simply must prove it is who it says it is – that is, an NCAA Tournament team – by winning on the scoreboard. That will prove a tall task Wednesday night.

Bama could well be the Bulldogs’ toughest opponent to date. Don’t be fooled by the record. The Tide has played one of the tougher schedules in the league this season. They lost three in a row in December, losing games to No. 4 Purdue, No. 4 Arizona and on the road at No. 8 Creighton. Their other losses came to Ohio State and Clemson. Their lone SEC loss came on the road to Tennessee.

More recently, coach Nate Oats’ fifth team knocked off No. 8 Auburn in Tuscaloosa 79-75 a week ago and ran LSU out of Coleman Coliseum 109-88 on Wednesday night. They’re led by senior guard Mark Sears, who is tied for the SEC scoring lead with an average of 20 points per game. They make 3′s like rain, shooting 38.9% as a team from behind the arc. As a team, Alabama also ranks among league leaders in rebounding and free-throw shooting.

Georgia counters with a team that in league play ranks last in field-goal percentage defense (.471) and 11th defending 3′s (.344). On Wednesday, it’ll need to be much better.

“We’ve really struggled defensively in two of the last three, at Florida and at Kentucky,” White said. “Some of it’s transition, some of it’s defensive rebounding, some of it’s just physicality. We’ve regressed (defensively) a little recently as we’ve taken some steps forward offensively. We’ve got to get back to make improvements defensively without offensive regression.”

Meanwhile, Georgia has some physical limitations to overcome. Justin Hill, who sprained his right ankle in overtime against the Gators, was unable to practice Monday or Tuesday, and his availability Wednesday night was uncertain.

Also, White revealed that several players are dealing with a virus that is making its way through the locker room. He didn’t name names, but when asked a question about freshman guards Blue Cain and Silas Demary, intimated that they might be “battling some stuff.”

“We’re fighting some illness,” White said. “Hopefully we’ll be closer to full strength (Wednesday).”

If Georgia has proved nothing else, it is that it has great depth and versatility. With junior transfer RJ Melendez scoring 35 against Florida on Saturday, the Bulldogs’ bench has outscored opponents in 18 of 20 games this season and by an average of 14.6 points. UGA ranks 15th nationally in bench points at 31.4 per game.

Wherever it comes from, Georgia knows it’s going to take a total team effort to get past Alabama.

“We’ve got to play one of our best games, if not our best game, to beat these guys,” White said.

On the other side of it, more challenges await. South Carolina (17-3, 5-2) will be up next, visiting the Steg on Saturday (1 p.m., SEC Network).

The Gamecocks represent Georgia’s only Quad-1 victory so far, as the Bulldogs beat them 74-69 on January 16 in Columbia.

Being at home, Georgia promises to be up for it.

“The biggest thing is just treating this like another game,” said Thomasson, a graduate transfer and the Bulldogs’ second-leading scorer (11.9 ppg). “They’ve got to come in here and play on our home floor and try to beat us at our place. We’ve just got to play defense, play the game the right way and have fun.”

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