Kentucky will test Georgia’s defensive prowess on senior night

Georgia will recognize its three seniors — guards Vincent Williams and Sherrard Brantley and center John Florveus — before the final home game of the season tonight against Kentucky.

They aren’t a flashy bunch.

Williams is the top scorer among the group at 4.9 points per game, but the trio is part of a Georgia team that has been effective on the defensive end this season.

Georgia is holding opponents to a 38.6 percent field goal percentage, on pace to be the best in program history dating to records that go back to the 1959-60 season. That puts the Bulldogs (14-15, 8-8 SEC) second in the SEC heading into today’s games and 21st in the nation, according to the latest NCAA statistics.

“The strength of the team is defense,” Florveus said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can come off the bench. We’ve got a lot of athletic bigs and athletic guards in the backcourt. Everybody is just putting their full effort in on defense and trying to keep us in games.”

Georgia finished 19th nationally in field goal percentage defense two years ago on an NCAA Tournament team that featured Trey Thompkins, Travis Leslie and Gerald Robinson.

“Defense wins games basically,” said guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the only Georgia player scoring in double figures. “It helps us on the offensive end, too, because once we get stops we can either push it and get easy baskets or set our offense and run an offensive play. The defense has been a key in us winning games.”

Coach Mark Fox said the starting point for the defense is that Caldwell-Pope decided he would be a better defender than last year as a freshman.

“When your best offensive player really wants to defend, I think it helps you,” Fox said. “Vincent has always been someone who’s defended. When your backcourt gives you that kind of start defensively, everybody else follows suit. I think they realize it’s important for this team. As inexperienced as we were with so many freshmen and sophomores in big roles, they knew the first thing we had to establish was a really good defense and so they’ve committed to it.”

The defense hasn’t been infallible.

Georgia lost at Vanderbilt last week after leading by 17 when the Commodores shot 48 percent in the second half.

“That’s a mind thing,” Williams said. “You control what you do out there on the court. There’s a difference from being on defense to playing defense. I feel we have a team now that believes in that and plays defense.”

The 6-foot-5 Caldwell-Pope (an NBA prospect who could also be playing his final home game) and 6-foot-4 freshman Charles Mann give the Bulldogs a big backcourt.

That’s by design. Fox wanted to get bigger in the backcourt.

“I think they’ve got great size and length at every position,” said Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy, whose team was swept by Georgia this season, shooting 34.7 percent and 24.0 percent in the two games. “They’re very athletic and they’re well-coached defensively and solid fundamentally.”

Georgia also plays at a slower pace that suits them, and takes away easy transition baskets for opponents.

Georgia held Tennessee to just 14 points in the paint in a win Saturday, limiting second leading scorer Jarnell Stokes to 3-of-7 shooting.

“I think (Georgia) did a good job packing it in the lane,” guard Jordan McRae said. “Every time we tried to drive, it was like driving into a wall. There was nowhere to go. It was tough.”

Georgia’s frontcourt includes the 6-foot-11 Florveus, 6-foot-9 Donte’ Williams and 6-foot-8 Nemanja Djurisic off the bench who can guard on the perimeter. Brantley has been forced to play out of position this season as a small forward after Marcus Thornton was lost for the season with his latest knee injury.

Kentucky (20-9, 11-5) will certainly test a Bulldogs’ defense that allows 61.4 points per game. The Wildcats are fighting for an NCAA Tournament bid but are averaging 74.8 points per game and rank 10th in the nation in field goal percentage at 48.5.

“It will be huge for us if we win,” Florveus said. “It will be the first time I’d beat a powerhouse program like that — Kentucky. It would definitely be a big signature win.”

Kentucky at Georgia

When: 7 p.m. today

Where: Stegeman Coliseum

TV: ESPN

Radio: WRFC 960-AM.

Records: Kentucky is 20-9, 11-5 SEC; Georgia is 14-15, 8-8 SEC.

Season at a glance: Kentucky was preseason No. 3 ranked in the nation, but except for one week in February hasn’t been ranked since December. The Wildcats are fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives a season after winning the national title. A big reason is that they lost star freshman Nerlens Noel for the season with a torn ACL on Feb. 12 at Florida. The Wildcats lost that game and two of their next five. Noel was averaging 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per game. Kentucky had 19 turnovers in a 73-60 loss at Arkansas on Saturday. Georgia has won two of its last three games, getting home wins against South Carolina and Tennessee around a road loss at Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs swept the season series from Tennessee with a 78-68 win Saturday.

Probable starting lineups:

Kentucky: G Archie Goodwin (6-4 1/2, 198, Fr., 13.8 ppg. 3.0 apg); G Ryan Harrow (6-2, 170, So., 10.2 ppg, 3.2 apg); G Julius Mays (6-2, 192, Sr., 9.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg); F Alex Poythress (6-7, 239, Fr., 11.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg); F Willie Cauley-Stein (7-0, 244, Fr, 8.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg.).

Georgia: G Vincent Williams (6-0, 165, Sr., 4.9 ppg, 2.2 apg); G Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (6-5, 205, So., 18.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg ); F: Sherrard Brantley (6-2, 187, Sr., 3.4 ppg, 1.2 rpg); F Donte’ Williams (6-9, 225, Jr., 5.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg); C John Florveus (6-11, 240, Sr., 2.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg).

Series record: The Wildcats lead 115-25 and have won three consecutive and five of the last six. Kentucky is 40-16 in games in Athens.

Last meeting: Kentucky rolled over Georgia 79-49 in Lexington on March 1, 2012. The Wildcats made 15 3-pointers and got 17 points from senior Darius Miller. Donte Williams had 17 for Georgia.

Noteworthy: Georgia’s three seniors have started a combined 28 SEC games this season, including 15 for Florveus and 11 for Williams. “I haven’t won against Kentucky since I’ve been here,” said Florveus, a transfer from Hillsborough (Fla.) Community College. “It’s not going to be easy, but we just have a little bit more confidence going into this game. I don’t want to lose on senior night, obviously.” … Kentucky is 4-6 on the road this season, including three consecutive losses at Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas by a combined 60 points. Georgia is 5-3 at home in SEC play … Harrow is a transfer from NC State. … Cauley-Stein is averaging 10.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.8 blocks per game in the last five games. … Caldwell-Pope is second in the SEC in scoring (18.0) and 3-point field goals per game (2.6). … Kentucky is shooting 64.7 percent from the free throw line, 12th in the SEC.

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