Felton's Dawgs set themselves for SEC opener

ATHENS – Georgia's five-game, non-conference winning streak did little to change the rock-bottom expectations of the Bulldogs' young squad, and they know it.

Their first chance to really prove anybody wrong comes tonight when Tennessee (7-5) comes to Stegeman Coliseum for both teams' first conference game of the season. Consecutive wins over Gardner-Webb, Oregon State, Wofford, Bethune-Cookman and Savannah State didn't turn half as many wins heads as one conference win would for Georgia (6-4).

"Most definitely," freshman point guard Sundiata Gaines said. "Every team we are going to go in and play, with the exception of maybe one or two, we're going in as the underdog. Every team that goes against us, they pretty much think it's a game they can win. They think they are coming in to improve their record. We have to come out and establish ourselves and lead off by beating Tennessee as an example."

Coach Dennis Felton stuffed his team's pre-conference schedule with the likes of Gardner-Webb and Savannah State to give it a chance to compete and build its confidence, but it will have to win at least six of its conference games to have a chance for any kind of postseason tournament.

"Conference wins are what are going to get you a postseason berth," sophomore forward Steve Newman said. "Now is our chance to actually show what we've got."

The Bulldogs could be slowed tonight by an injured Levi Stukes. The sophomore guard, Georgia's leading scorer at 17 points per game, has missed more than a day of practice due to what Newman described as a hip injury. Stukes participated in about half of Tuesday's practice, Newman said. How effective he'll be tonight is unclear.

The Volunteers come into Athens with plenty to prove as well. They have won three of their last four, but those victories came against opponents that could have come right off Georgia's schedule – Belmont, Campbell and Coastal Carolina. The one loss in that stretch was by one point to Nebraska.

"They're pretty much in the situation we're in," Gaines said. "They're trying to find themselves right now. That'll be a good start to see where we're at."

Vols coach Buzz Peterson likes the direction of his team, he said this week.

"We've really stepped it up lately on both offense and defense," he said. "I'm excited about what I think we can accomplish."

Georgia's young players also are excited, but they'll need a few early wins to maintain that. After tonight's game, the Bulldogs travel to South Carolina to play the Gamecocks on Saturday. They then have a road game against lightly regarded Ole Miss, so a quick start isn't out of the question.

"In the SEC, if you start 0-2 or 0-3, it's hard to get back in there," Newman said. "You have to start with a couple wins to build your confidence, especially with us being such a young team."



Today, 7:30 p.m., Stegeman Coliseum, Athens, Ga.

Broadcast: 106.1-FM

Georgia 6-4 (0-0 SEC), Tennessee 7-5 (0-0 SEC)

ABOUT GEORGIA: Sophomore guard Levi Stukes leads Georgia and is tied for fifth in the SEC in scoring with 17 points per game. Freshman point guard Sundiata Gaines is tied for 17th in the league in scoring (13.9 ppg). … Freshman Dave Bliss is 11th in the SEC in rebounding (6.1 per game). … Georgia is last in the league in shooting from the floor (44.4 percent) and the free throw line (59.6 percent).

ABOUT TENNESSEE: The Volunteers are led by guard Scooter McFadgon's 16.2 points per game. He is the ninth-leading scorer in the SEC. … Big man Brandon Crump leads UT in rebounding (6.1 per game) and blocked shots (16). … Tennessee is 0-1 on an opponent's home floor and 1-2 at neutral sites this year.

SCOUTING REPORT: Tennessee has one of the SEC most talented big men in Brandon Crump. Crump has yet to live up to his potential, but he'll still be a handful for the Bulldogs, who have little size or strength on the inside. Georgia also is worried about the Vols' outside shooting. Freshman Vol Chris Lofton, who was Mr. Kentucky basketball last year, is hitting an amazing 60 percent from behind the 3-point line. He would be leading the nation in that category if he had enough attempts. He has 53. Georgia's practices have been re-energized since a Dec. 31 loss to Stetson, freshman guard Sundiata Gaines said, and he expects a more aggressive team than the one that lost its last outing.

NEXT: Georgia at South Carolina, Saturday, 8 p.m. (FSNS); Tennessee vs. Vanderbilt, Saturday, 4 p.m. (CBS)

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