Dawgs Ready for SEC Home Opener

ATHENS – It's not that Albert Jackson minds the pats on the back.

After all his team has been through in his four seasons in Athens, hearing platitudes from the pundits is a nice change of pace.

Still, he admits there's a big part of him that wouldn't mind if fans were a bit critical of Georgia's performance after an eight-point loss at Rupp Arena to No. 2 Kentucky. After all, the credit given for a loss implies few fans thought the Bulldogs could win.

"That would be great to have to hear, ‘How did you guys lose to Kentucky?'" Jackson said. "But at the same time, you've got to earn it. You earn it with big wins and success on the court, but hopefully we'll be at that point real soon."

On the surface, the facts are these: At 8-6, Georgia is actually one game off its pace through 14 games a year ago, and that eight-point loss to Kentucky actually falls well short of a five-point win last year's team earned at Rupp Arena.

But no one is arguing those numbers tell the full story. The truth is, this team is on its way up – which is markedly different from where things stood in mid-January one year ago.

"At this point in time last year it's when we went downhill," Jackson said of last year's stretch of 11 straight losses from Jan. 3 through Feb. 11. "This year, I think it's the point we're starting to uplift ourselves. Last year we weren't prepared for SEC play and now I think the sky is the limit for us. But it's all on us how good we do."

So far, Georgia has been solid and occasionally spectacular.

The Bulldogs toppled Illinois before Christmas then earned their first win over a top-25 team by beating rival Georgia Tech on Jan. 5 at home. The strong showing at Kentucky – Georgia led by a point at the half – only served to bolster the idea that the perceived cellar dwellers could actually be competitive in the SEC East.

"I think we've learned something about ourselves in the Kentucky game with the type of resilience we showed," point guard Dustin Ware said. "I think we all thought with some time we could become a very good team, and I think it's starting to come around."

The tests don't get any easier, however. Georgia faces its third straight ranked opponent tonight when it hosts Mississippi at Stegeman Coliseum in a game that will go a long way to determining just how far head coach Mark Fox's first season can go.

The Rebels enter play ranked 23rd nationally and a dangerous combination of scorers – particularly on the perimeter. Ole Miss has five players averaging double figures, led by guards Chris Warren (16.7 ppg) and Terrico White (16.7 pgg). That means a tough road ahead for the Bulldogs' defense.

"The number of scoring wing players and guards they have is a real issue," Fox said. "They have a lot of guys who can make plays and they can play the small lineup very effectively. That's a concern for us because the matchups are not ideal."

Lofty challenges are no longer an albatross for the Bulldogs, however. They're an opportunity. Georgia's performance in Kentucky turned heads even if it didn't turn the SEC standings on its head.

And yet there's still that feeling that those pats on the back are more from sympathy than from genuine excitement for the Bulldogs. As Ware said, Georgia still lost the game, and therefore it didn't really accomplish anything.

But not everyone is so quick to dole out the praise, and there's no doubt that Fox expects more.

"I thought we were going to win at Kentucky," Fox said. "I'm not going to lie. I thought that was a game we could win, the timing and the way that it fell."

So if Georgia survives it's three-game gauntlet against ranked foes with a 2-1 record during the stretch, it will no doubt be a success, and for a beleaguered program, it would be a big leap forward.

But after it's all said and done, at least one of the Bulldogs' proponents will consider the stretch a disappointment – and that might say more than anything about how far they've come.

"If we can win and be 2-1," Fox said, "and we'll take that. But you'll always say, ‘Dang it, we could be 3-0.'"

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