Young Dawgs get set for SEC play

ATHENS – Georgia guard Mike Mercer has been hearing about today for months.

The Bulldogs, who have been boosted to respectability by the contribution of freshmen Mercer and Billy Humphrey, starts their SEC schedule with a noon game against Florida in Stegeman Coliseum. Now is the time when Georgia will find out if its 10-3 record is a turnaround or a mirage.

The biggest factor in determining that answer will be how its freshmen react to the step up in competition, and it gets hairy in a hurry for the Bulldogs. The Gators (13-0) are off to their best start in school history and are ranked No. 5 in the country.

"What better way to start it than with a cupcake like… No, I'm just joking," Georgia coach Dennis Felton said. "It's a great challenge. Florida is one of the premier teams in the country. They've got tremendous players, tremendous athleticism and size, and they're very, very well-coached. That's a lot to go up against for a young team like ours."

Mike Mercer and fellow guard Humphrey are second and third, respectively, in scoring for Georgia at more than 11 points per game.

"I heard a lot of (the SEC) from the veterans when I first came to the school," Mercer said. "Basically, they said it was going to be a lot more physical, the game's going to move a lot faster and teams are going to be a lot better in the SEC.

"Honestly, I really don't know if I'm prepared for it because I haven't witnessed it yet. (But) I want to show that I'm a legit SEC player, not just a freshman who has had good games against mediocre teams."

Georgia won just two of its 16 conference games last year, but Felton won't make too big a deal about the start of the conference season, he said.

"We tend to work at staying focused on the particulars that go into every game that we play regardless of who it is," he said. "We tend to treat every game the same. Our team will know Florida very, very well, and it'll be about much more than just knowing that they are an SEC opponent or a very good opponent. They'll know all the particulars on them, and that's what we need to stay focused on to compete and have a chance to win."

The opponent won't be the only thing that's different today. Fewer than 1,000 tickets remain for the game, meaning the atmosphere will be much different from what the freshmen usually experience at home, where crowds of a couple thousand were the norm in the preseason.

"The most important thing for them is to not get caught up in all the hype," said sophomore center Dave Bliss, who qualifies as a veteran on this team. "You're getting into the heart of the season now. This is really where your success is determined. If you do well in this part of the season, you're probably going to get into the postseason. Seniors start getting toward the end of their careers. Guys just tend to play harder in the conference schedule. It'll be a good challenge for us being a young team still, but there's no reason we should be intimidated."

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