For the first time in three seasons, Georgia coach Mark Fox doesn’t have to open Southeastern Conference play against Kentucky.
That doesn’t mean his team in transition is catching any breaks.
Georgia, missing top rebounder Marcus Thornton due to a right knee injury, won’t ease into its SEC schedule.
The Bulldogs face Alabama at 7 p.m. today in Stegeman Coliseum, then go on the road to play No. 13 Florida on Tuesday and at Vanderbilt a week from today.
All three opponents are projected NCAA tournament teams.
“We do have a tough start, especially under the circumstances with the injury,” Fox said Friday. “It’s going to even out. I wish we had those games later when we have Marcus back. It is what it is. I don’t lose any sleep over it.”
Thornton is expected back sometime this season, but Fox said “it will be a while.”
Georgia went 9-7 in the SEC last year, its best record in eight years, but juniors Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie left for the NBA.
The Los Angeles Clippers’ second-round draft picks hooked up on an alley-oop in the fourth quarter of a win over the Rockets on Wednesday night.
Fox spoke to Thompkins the day after he scored eight points and had three rebounds in 14 minutes.
“I’ve supported those guys’ decisions,” Fox said. “I really have. You can’t live backwards.”
Looking ahead, junior guard Vincent Williams said he couldn’t say what he would consider to be a good SEC season for these Bulldogs (9-5). Sophomore forward Donte’ Williams finally came up with an answer after thinking about it for 10 seconds.
“Probably winning all the home games and getting a couple of wins on the road would be pretty good for us,” he said. “With us having a young team, it’s going to be hard for us, especially playing at Kentucky, playing at Florida.”
Donte’ Williams pointed out that he’s already played more minutes this year (358) than he did all of last season (179). Vincent Williams played all of 29 minutes in SEC play last season, but has moved into the starting lineup.
“Every game I’m just trying to learn, learn, learn and become a better player,” Donte’ Williams said.
Despite the Bulldogs’ growing pains, they could still fight to be in the the middle of the SEC pack.
Georgia is eighth among SEC teams in ESPN’s InsideRPI ahead of Arkansas, Souith Carolina, Auburn and Tennessee.
The SEC has done away with divisions this year, although Fox thinks with the league growing to 14 next season, that two divisions could return.
For now, the standings will go 1-12.
Besides Thompkins and Leslie, the Bulldogs also lost big bodies inside in Jeremy Price and Chris Barnes. Their top three scorers — freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware — aren’t interior players.
The 6-foot-7, 235-pound Thornton leads the team with 5.8 rebounds per game, so his absence the past two games has been felt. Georgia is last in the SEC in rebounding margin.
“He gave us advantages that we don’t have now,” Fox said. “We had to kind of change plans.”
Freshman Nemanja Djurisic has stepped into Thornton’s role as the starter at power forward, but the 6-8, 230-pound Montenegro native is more adept offensively than defensively. Thornton was also getting work at small forward, so Connor Nolte’s minutes as a backup have increased.
Tonight’s game will be the first SEC game that Djurisic has attended in person.
He signed with Georgia in the spring after playing at South Kent School in Connecticut, but “watched all the time on TV.”
Donte Williams said the team is still searching for its identity, but there are positive signs.
“Since a month ago to now, we made a lot of improvement with finding who we are,” he said.
The Bulldogs have won five in a row as their nonconference schedule softened.
While Georgia ranks 268th out of 338 NCAA Division I teams in scoring at 63.1 points per game, it is encouraged by how it is handling the ball with only 11.1 turnovers per game, which ranks 11th nationally.
“We have to play very intelligent basketball,” Fox said. “That’s critical to our success.”
Fox thinks the wins in league play will come if Georgia plays a certain way.
“For us, it always starts with treating the game the right way and playing hard and playing the right way and continuing to get better,” he said. “Every day and every game for this team is a learning experience. If we continue to grow, then we’ll get where we need to be. Can’t control that timetable.”
Alabama at Georgia
WHEN/WHERE: 7 p.m. today/Stegeman Coliseum.
TV/RADIO: FSSO/AM-960 The Ref.
RECORDS: Alabama (11-3); Georgia (9-5).
PROBABLE STARTERS: Alabama — G Trevor Lacey(So., 6-1, 180, 6.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg); G Trevor Releford (So., 6-1, 180, 12.4 ppg, 3.3 apg); G Levi Randolph (Fr., 6-5, 185, 6.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg); F Tony Mitchell (Jr., 6-6, 210, 15.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg); F JaMychal Green (Sr., 6-8, 240, 15.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg). Georgia — G Vincent Williams (Jr., 6-0, 160, 5.1 ppg, 2.1 apg); G Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Fr., 6-5, 200, 14.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg); G Gerald Robinson (Sr., 6-1, 180, 13.8 ppg, 3.3 apg); F Nemanja Djurisic (Fr., 6-8, 230, 5.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg); F Donte’ Williams (So., 6-9, 220, 7.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg).
SERIES: Alabama leads 90-47, including 29-27 in Athens.
LAST MEETING: Alabama won 65-59 in overtime at the Georgia Dome in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals last season on March 11, 2010. The Crimson Tide overcame a 14-point deficit in the second half.
SEASON AT A GLANCE: Alabama, which missed out on the NCAA tournament last season despite a 12-4 conference records, has won four of its last five games. The Crimson Tide routed Georgia Tech 73-48 on Tuesday at Philips Arena. The Yellow Jackets won in Athens 68-56 on Dec. 7. Releford scored 17 points and had four assists and made all eight field-goal attempts. The Crimson Tide’s three losses have come against top-30 RPI teams — Georgetown, Dayton and Kansas State. Georgia enters SEC play on a five-game winning streak after sitting at 4-5 while playing a tough nonconference slate early. The schedule softened heading into league play with home wins against Furman, Winthrop and Delaware State. Dustin Ware scored 15 points off the bench in a 58-51 win against Delaware State on Dec. 30.
NOTEWORTHY: Green, the first-team preseason All-SEC pick, came off the bench to score nine points and grab five rebounds in the Georgia Tech game. He had been out with a shoulder injury. …The Crimson Tide forced 22 turnovers in the win. … Junior Andrew Steele rejoined the Crimson Tide team this week after being out due to concussions. He scored nine points in 12 minutes against the Yellow Jackets. … Ware has come off the bench the past five games after his 87-game starting streak ended. He’s averaged 13.2 points per game in the last five contests. “Since we’ve done it, he’s played good and we haven’t lost,” coach Mark Fox said. “Whether we continue with that forever, I don’t know, but it certainly has worked the last month.” … Football tight end Jay Rome was back at practice Friday and presumably will be dressed out tonight. Cornerback Nick Marshall, however, may not join the team this season. “With as strong as we are in the backcourt, I’m not sure if it would be a year he would play,” Fox said.