Dawgs Brace for Talented Jackets

ATHENS – Mark Fox was watching a bit of TV Monday morning when something caught his eye.

The commentators were discussing some early projections for the 2010 NBA draft, and lo and behold, the first two names on the list were players Fox was all too familiar with.

Georgia (7-5) will see the potential No. 1 pick, John Wall, on Saturday when it visits Kentucky to get SEC play started for the year, and the Bulldogs will tangle with the next name on the list – Georgia Tech's Derek Favors – tonight when the Yellow Jackets arrive at Stegeman Coliseum boasting an 11-2 record and a No. 17 ranking.

"It's certainly a week we have to see some great players," Fox said.

Of course, Georgia boasts a future NBA prospect, too, and forward Trey Thompkins is eagerly awaiting the matchup with Favors, an old friend from their high school and AAU days.

Thompkins lobbied Favors to come to Georgia last year, but his sales pitch didn't close the deal. Still, the two have stayed in close contact this season, and Thompkins said tonight's game will provide a rare opportunity for the two to test their skills against each other in a competitive situation after only playing head to head two or three times previously.

"It's a thing between me and him, and most people wouldn't understand it," Thompkins said. "But he wants to give his best punch, and I'm going to give mine. We'll see what happens."

And while Favors has Georgia's attention, Thompkins is on Tech's radar, too.

The sophomore is averaging 15.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game this season and is easily Georgia's top scoring option. Early foul trouble against Missouri last weekend stunted his production, and he finished with just nine points. The result was a blowout win for the Tigers.

"I have to play smarter," Thompkins said. "That's basically all I can say."

That's the idea for Georgia's whole roster, Fox said. While Thompkins has shouldered the scoring load this season, the bigger problem may be getting him the ball.

When Fox arrived, he promised to begin incrementally installing the triangle offense, and the learning curve has been steep for the Bulldogs, mixed with some high and low points.

"Not everything is down pat, and talking to the coaching staff, a lot of them said it took years to really work everything out," point guard Dustin Ware said. "We've made a lot of strides in picking it up. It's a learning curve, but we're definitely farther ahead than a lot of us probably expected."

But while things are progressing, they're far from where they need to be. Georgia turned the ball over 23 times against Missouri, something that can't happen if the Bulldogs hope to topple Tech.

The Missouri game was more of an anomaly in how it unfolded, Fox said, but the trend is clear – Georgia needs to protect the basketball better, regardless of the novice stature of its backcourt in running Fox's offense.

"I don't think I've ever coached a team that's had more turnovers than it's had assists," Fox said. "We're making some progress, but we have far too many players on our team with more turnovers than assists, and it's obviously a concern we're going to have to continue to address."

That's the practical issue in tonight's game. On the mental side, it's Tech that has the big hurdle to overcome.

Tech hasn't won a game in Athens in 38 years – although a majority of that time featured off-campus matchups. Still, since the series returned to campus in the 1995-96 season, the home team has won all but one of the 14 games.

So while Georgia is clearly the underdog and Tech is enjoying a strong start to the season, history is hard to ignore – that that coach Paul Hewitt wants to ignore it.

"That's something we'll make clear to them, that you can't go into the game with any fear," Hewitt said. "It's a great opportunity."

Of course, as rivalry games go, this one might lack a bit of energy. Georgia Tech's football team will be playing concurrently in Miami, Fla. in the Orange Bowl, while Fox lamented the fact that the game is being played in Athens several days before students return from winter break.

Still, the showdown looms large for Thompkins and Favors, who provide each other with likely their toughest tests to date. The game will give Tech a chance to get the monkey off its back with a win in Athens for the first time since 1972. And a win over Tech would be a stepping stone for Georgia's road back to being a contender, and a signature win for Fox's crew.

"I love big games," Ware said. "Teams are supposed to be great – which they are – and we're going to have to bring it. But I think it's going to be good for us to get used to that, and it's going to get us prepared for what we're going to see down the road."

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