UGA men’s basketball opens SEC play against No. 11 Florida

Southeastern Conference play arrives for Georgia tonight when the Bulldogs play at No. 11 Florida, the start of a nine-week march toward the league tournament in Nashville, Tenn.

“I think it’s going to be a real grind,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said.

This is the first season of the new 18-game conference schedule, expanded from 16 after the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M.

The nonconference slate has been a slog itself for much of the SEC.

The league is down, rated seventh among all conferences in this week’s Sagarin Ratings.

Georgia (6-7) is one of three SEC teams with a losing record, but has won four straight after losing seven of its first nine games.

“I think our nonleague schedule has been really good for this team,” Fox said. “They learned a lot about themselves. We dug ourselves a hole at the start of the year. We did that to ourselves. We can get out of it, but as I told them, it’s going to take two months to get out of it.”

This didn’t help the league before conference play: Alabama A&M 59, Mississippi State 57. Marist 50, Vanderbilt 33. Mercer 66, Alabama 59. Winthrop 74, Auburn 67. Youngstown State 68, Georgia 56.

“Obviously starting off the nonconference, our teams haven’t played like people thought they would be,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “I think the race is going to be wide open.”

Only Florida and Missouri are in the top 50 of the Ratings Percentage Index. Five are outside the top 150: Vanderbilt (156), Georgia (205), Auburn (219), South Carolina (230) and Mississippi State (283). Only South Carolina finished last season outside the top 150.

“As a whole, our league had quite a bit of a turnover,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “There are some exceptions of course. … When all is said and done, I think you’ll see our league is very competitive.”

Georgia plays four of its first six games against teams among the top four in the SEC in the RPI — twice against Florida and road games at Missouri and Texas A&M.

“I think we’ve got a little tough schedule, but we’ve got to fight through that,” sophomore guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “The team has been playing well the last couple of games. We’ve just got to continue to play well and keep competing.”

The start of league play is a new beginning of sorts for the Bulldogs, who went 5-11 and finished 11th in the SEC last season.

Despite that, freshman forward Brandon Morris said despite the team’s slow start this season, he thinks Georgia has the potential to win the SEC.

“We have a real good spirit,” said Morris, who said Florida offered him a scholarship out of Miller Grove High School, making this game “real personal” to him.

Georgia plays five teams twice: South Carolina, Florida, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Alabama. It plays former Eastern Division foes Kentucky and Vanderbilt just once. The Wildcats visit Athens on March 7 for the teams’ only meeting.

“There’s a part of me that thinks we should just have 26 league games and just have it out,” Fox said. “We’ve always had balanced scheduling at least within your division. Now we don’t have that. That’s what kind of makes the double round robin and all of those games appealing. I know no one would ever go for that. The schedules are very skewed now. There’s no way around that with 14 teams and only playing 18 games. … With 18 games, hopefully the best team obviously will rise to the top.

Georgia plays its first game away from Athens in more than a month.

The Bulldogs are 0-4 away from Stegeman Coliseum, losing true road games at South Florida and Georgia Tech and neutral site games against Indiana and UCLA.

Fox, now in his fourth season at Georgia, called the 10-2 Gators “as good of a Florida team as I’ve seen in my tenure here at Georgia.” He said Florida’s experience, offensive balance and strong defense makes them complete.

“For our team, you play a ranked team on the road, sure it’s an opportunity,” Fox said. “Certainly Florida’s off to a great start, has a terrific team. Probably the best Florida team that I think they’ve had. We’ll have to play very well, but it’s an exciting time to start league (play) and to play a great team.”

Georgia at Florida

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: O’Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.

TV: CSS.

Radio: WRFC 960-AM.

Records: The Bulldogs are 6-7, 0-0 SEC The Gators are 10-2, 0-0 SEC.

Season at a glance: Georgia heads into SEC play on a four-game winning streak, most recently a 52-41 home win against George Washington on Friday night. The Bulldogs have used eight different starting lineups. Georgia held GW without a 3-pointer for the first time in 261 games and won on a night it had 25 turnovers. Florida was ranked as high as fifth in the nation in the Dec. 10 AP poll after starting 7-0—including an 18-point win against Wisconsin–but dropped road games at Arizona 65-64 and Kansas State 67-61. The Gators, an Elite Eight team last season, are coming off a 79-58 win at Yale on Sunday night when guard Kenny Boynton tied a career high with 28 points, including eight 3-pointers.

Probable starting lineups:

Georgia: G Vincent Williams (6-0, 165, Sr., 5.5 ppg, 2.3 apg); Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (6-5, 205, So., 17.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg ); F: Brandon Morris (6-7, 205, Fr., 3.9 ppg, 1.9 rpg); F Donte’ Williams (6-9, 225, Jr., 5.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg); C John Florveus (6-11, 240, Sr., 2.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg);

Florida: G Kenny Boynton (6-2, 190, Sr., 13.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg); G Mike Rosario (6-3, 183, R-Sr., 11.8 ppg, 2.4 RPG); G Scottie Wilbekin (6-2, 176, Jr, 8.2 ppg, 4.7 apg.); F Will Yeguete (6-7, 240, Jr., 6.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg); C Patric Young (6-9, 249, Jr., 10.8 ppg. 6.6 rpg).

Series record: Florida leads 106-99, including 10 in a row at home. The Gators have won 15 of the last 18 games.

Last meeting: Georgia beat the Gators 76-62 on Feb. 25, 2012. The Bulldogs held Florida to 36.7 percent from the field.. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope led five players in double figures with 18.

Noteworthy: F/C Erik Murphy (12.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg) is doubtful for Florida after missing what was intended to be a homecoming game of sorts at Yale. The Rhode Island native has a fractured rib, according to the school’s athletic website…Georgia sophomore forwards Nemanja Djurisic has come off the bench to lead the team in scoring the last two games with 21 and 17 points …The Gators rank fourth in the nation in scoring defense (52.7 ppg), fifth in scoring margin (20.6) and 11th in field goal percentage defense (36.8). “We’re going to have to be very efficient offensively against their press,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. …Georgia is 47th in the nation in field goal percentage defense 938.6), but 304th in the nation in scoring offense (60.6) and 245th in field goal percentage (41.4).…Florida coach Billy Donovan is 396-160 in his 17th season, including 13-2 at home against Georgia. He’s 7-0 in SEC home openers. …Boynton broke Lee Humphrey’s career 3-point record against Yale. He now has 290. …Fox confirmed that tight end Jay Rome, who played last winter on the basketball team, won’t join the team this season.

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