NASHVILLE, Tenn. ----- A Georgia team that has achieved midseason glory for its wins at Kentucky and Florida still has difficult road work left ahead.
Based on its history, Georgia has approached visits to Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym with as much dread as any Southeastern Conference site south of Kentucky's Rupp Arena. Georgia is only 12-42 in Nashville, though four of those five wins came in the last five years.
Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym has been a graveyard for some of Georgia's best teams:
- Tubby Smith's 1996 Sweet 16 Georgia team lost at Vanderbilt.
- Georgia's highest-ranked team ever — a No. 11 team early in the 1990-91 season — lost in overtime at Vanderbilt and soon tumbled out of the poll.
- Georgia's only SEC championship team escaped with a one-point win in 1990.
- Hugh Durham's 22-win team lost by one point in Nashville in 1985.
- Durham's Final Four team also fell by one point at Memorial Gym in 1983.
Jim Harrick, 1-1 at Vanderbilt in his first two seasons at Georgia, has had to worry about more pressing matters the last two weeks than the Bulldogs' poor history at Vanderbilt. On Jan. 16, Harrick had to suspend two Georgia players alleged to have been involved in an on-campus rape, and Thursday he lifted the suspensions due to conflicting testimony provided in an affidavit.
On Friday, Harrick said forward Steve Thomas will travel with the team to Vanderbilt. Harrick said he will make a game-time decision on whether Thomas, who had been a starter, will play today.
The other suspended player, guard Tony Cole, was not at practice Thursday or Friday and must take care of other issues not related to the rape investigation before he is allowed back in practice.
Since the suspensions, Georgia has won two of three games — including an improbable victory at then-No. 2 Florida last Saturday — with Jonas Hayes filling in for Thomas in the starting lineup.
Georgia (16-3 overall and 5-1 in the SEC) is No. 15 in the nation and leads Florida by one-half game in the Eastern Division. Vanderbilt (12-6, 2-3) has won its last two games and has had a full week to prepare for today's game.
"Georgia is obviously playing the best basketball of anybody in the league right now,'' said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings.
"I'm just thoroughly impressed with the way they are playing and the games they have won. They deserve to be in first place. They are good on the offensive end and good on the defensive end.''
Georgia's Ezra Williams (17.9) and Jarvis Hayes (17.5) rank second and third, respectively, among the league's scoring leaders.
Forward Chris Daniels - the team's leader in rebounds (8.4 per game), blocked shots and steals - has added 13.2 points to help prevent teams from focusing defensive efforts on the wing players.
"You can't just stack your defense against one guy when you play Georgia because they have too many players who can hurt you,'' Stallings said.
The expected return of Thomas today will again give Georgia three legitimate inside players for two positions. For the last three games, 6-foot-5 Ryan Pevey, a former walk-on, has provided backup minutes behind Daniels and Jonas Hayes.
"(Thomas) looked rusty (in practice),'' said Jarvis Hayes. "When I was out (two weeks) with a knee injury, it took me a while to come back all the way. Hopefully, it won't take him as long.''
With Thomas starting, Georgia took an easy 82-69 home win over Vanderbilt to open its SEC schedule on Jan. 5. But many Georgia teams have taken convincing home wins over the Commodores only to fall in Memorial Gym.
"They play a lot better at home,'' said Harrick of the Commodores. "... They are playing a lot better now than in the first game. That was kind of a ragged game. This will be a very difficult challenge.''