Georgia has taken several steps forward during the first half of the season.
The Bulldogs have won 11 times. They have outexecuted opponents in the final minutes to scoop up victories where they might have stumbled in previous years.
But the Southeastern Conference season is a completely different environment and Georgia opens with one of the league’s premier teams – No. 10-ranked SEC East rival Kentucky.
"Everybody likes playing against big-named teams," Georgia forward Travis Leslie said. "If you’re an underdog, of course you’re going to play hard. I know this is going to be a hard-fought game no matter what, and we’ve got them at home."
Georgia (11-2) tips off against Kentucky (12-2) at 4 p.m. today in Stegeman Coliseum in the SEC opener for both teams.
"SEC games are all big, so you want to win as many as you can," Georgia guard Dustin Ware said. "Kentucky’s got a great tradition and a really good team with a lot of great players. But it’s an SEC game, so it’s big for both sides because we’re trying to start off with a win."
Georgia heads into SEC play with its most momentum since 2002. The Bulldogs are off to an 11-2 start, which is their best since 2002 and have won eight straight games for the first time since 2002.
But the biggest improvement so far this season has come in late-game efficiency. Georgia has won six games by three points or less and five of those were decided on the final possession.
"That should help us (against Kentucky)," Georgia forward Trey Thompkins said. "We feel like we’re a talented team and they’re a talented team, so it could end up a slugfest and come down to the last minute. With the experience we’ve had with a couple of close games and close wins, we feel like we’re prepared for it."
Georgia’s Mark Fox and Kentucky’s John Calipari are both in their second seasons, but their programs occupied opposite ends of the standings in the SEC East last year.
Kentucky is the defending conference champion and made the Elite Eight of last season’s NCAA tournament.
Although Georgia’s level of play improved, the Bulldogs still finished last in the division in 2009-10 and lost twice to the Wildcats.
"We’re a better team this year," Fox said. "Last year, it was kind of smoke and mirrors to hang in there. This year, I think we’re more equipped for league play. We’ve got more pieces to the puzzle."
This is the second straight season Georgia has begun SEC play against Kentucky. Last year, the Bulldogs were 8-5 and had won four out of their last five when they made the trip to Rupp Arena.
Leslie provided a highlight-video dunk over DeMarcus Cousins, but the Wildcats won the game 76-68. Kentucky later beat the Bulldogs 80-68 in the regular-season home finale.
"Night-in and night-out you’ve got to be prepared," Thompkins said. "It takes every point you have to beat every team in the SEC. We understand that now and as a team that’s what we’re working toward."
Kentucky will have a much different team than the one Georgia faced last season. The Wildcats lost five players to last summer’s NBA draft, including their top contributors – John Wall, Patrick Patterson and Cousins.
But the Wildcats have restocked with high-end freshmen like forward Terence Jones (17.1 points per game, 9.1 rebounds per game), guard Brandon Knight (18.3 ppg, 3.9 assists per game) and guard Doron Lamb (14.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg).
"I’m coaching these guys and I want people to watch and say ‘I can’t believe that young man’s playing that way," Calipari said in Mondays SEC coaches teleconference. "Our job as coaches is to bring that out of them and help them reach their dreams and make them do things they did not think they could do. Whether it’s Brandon, or Terence or Doron, they’ve all stepped up and done more than most people and maybe even I thought they could do."