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Dawgs set to defend Division title

While both teams bring seven-game winning streaks into the conference opener and the Bulldogs are not ranked, Georgia is No. 15 in the latest Ratings Percentage Index and its schedule difficulty is rated 13th. LSU is 46 in the RPI with a strength of schedule rated at 139.

ATHENS, Ga. - For SEC basketball openers, how's this: A Georgia team coming off an upset victory over second-ranked Pittsburgh today will play host to Louisiana State, which two weeks ago topped then-No. 1 Arizona.

 Tuesday's home win over Pittsburgh was a confidence-booster for Georgia, but today's 4:30 p.m. Southeastern Conference opener against No. 21 LSU is more important for the Bulldogs.

 Georgia, the defending SEC East Division champion, wants to build on momentum established in December by taking care of business at home in its first conference game.

 "It's very important,'' said Jarvis Hayes, who leads a balanced Georgia attack with 17.7 points per game. "If we get behind early in the SEC, it's very tough to get back.''

 Though spring semester is not yet in session, a sellout crowd is expected at Stegeman Coliseum. The game will be televised by CBS.

 Georgia (8-3) and LSU (9-1) each boast seven-game winning streaks, but more impressive to Coach Jim Harrick is his team's more recent streak of improved defensive play.

 The Bulldogs still rank last in the SEC in scoring defense, allowing 83 points per game, but in each of the last three games Georgia has held opponents under 40-percent shooting. It did not reach that defensive standard in any of its first eight games.

 One key has been the return of power forward Steve Thomas to the team. Thomas, the team's tallest and most physical inside presence, has averaged 8.8 rebounds per game since regaining his academic eligibility in mid-December.

 "If you can't get the rebound, you can't play defense,'' Harrick said.

 Pittsburgh was third in the nation in field goal percentage before being held under 40-percent shooting in the 79-67 loss to Georgia.

  In the last two years, Georgia took regular-season wins over LSU by five points and one point, but each year the Tigers took narrow SEC tournament wins over the Bulldogs - by one point and two points.

 "They've been great, great games,'' Harrick said, adding that this LSU team has more depth than the last two years.

 With Hayes, Thomas, Ezra Williams and Chris Daniels scoring in double figures, Georgia leads the SEC with its average of 83 points per game.

 LSU is second in the league in scoring defense, allowing 57.4 points per game - almost 17 fewer per game than Georgia's last-place average of 74.2 points per game.

 LSU's most consistent scoring threat is Ronald Dupree, a 6-foot-7 senior who is averaging 15.2 points per game and has proved to be a very difficult matchup problem for Georgia.

 Harrick also is concerned about LSU's new power forward Jaime Lloreda (6-9, 246), a native of Panama who ranks second in the league with 9.2 rebounds per game and also is a strong inside scorer.

 "(Lloreda) makes them a lot better,'' Harrick said. "He can score down there on the low block, he's quick and he's athletic. The little guard (Darrel) Mitchell makes them better, too. He gives them some blazing speed.''

 Mitchell (5-11, 174), a freshman, is scoring 8.0 points per game as a top backup.

 While both teams bring seven-game winning streaks into the conference opener and the Bulldogs are not ranked, Georgia is No. 15 in the latest Ratings Percentage Index and its schedule difficulty is rated 13th. LSU is 46 in the RPI with a strength of schedule rated at 139.


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