Going to the Dawgs

The 13-3 Georgia team Tennessee faces tonight at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens is just one win from matching the victory total it compiled in a 14-17 disappointment last season.

The dramatic turnaround has surprised a lot of people but Vol junior Cameron Tatum isn't one of them. Growing up in Lithonia, Ga., he already faced most of the players on the Bulldog roster and knew Mark Fox's team was a sleeping giant.

"Their talent is right up there with the best," Tatum said. "I know a lot of those guys. I played against them since middle school, so I know how good those guys are. They're very talented."

Tatum is especially familiar with the top Dawg. Trey Thompkins, a 6-10, 245-pound junior forward, is a fellow Lithonia native who played across town at Wesleyan High School. Widely regarded as the SEC's premier player, Thompkins is averaging 17.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. He burned Tennessee for 46 points and 18 rebounds in two meetings last season, with 25 of the points and 10 of the rebounds coming in the game at Knoxville. He hit 18 of 28 shots vs. the Vols, including 4 of 9 from beyond the arc.

Georgia's home-grown starters also include 6-8, 264-pound Jeremy Price (Decatur), 6-4, 202-pound Travis Leslie (Decatur) and 5-11, 182-pound Dustin Ware (Powder Springs). Leslie scorched Tennessee for 19 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists in last year's meeting at Athens. Like Thompkins, Leslie is coveted by pro scouts.

"They're a very talented team across the board," Tatum said. "They have NBA-caliber players on their team. We have to go down there with focus and be ready to match that intensity."

He knows that from experience. Tennessee suffered a humiliating defeat last season in Athens, falling behind 42-27 at halftime en route to a 78-63 drubbing. Georgia dominated on the inside that day, winning the backboards 35-24 and shooting a sizzling 56.3 percent from the field.

Tennessee's Scotty Hopson remembers the game vividly ... and painfully.

"They played very physical and confident," the Vol junior recalled. "They outplayed us on the inside. They had some big guys, and they played with togetherness. They just outplayed us."

And, as noted earlier, that was a Bulldog team that went on to finish 14-17. This year's team is cruising along at 13-3 overall and 2-1 in SEC play, with one of the wins being a 77-70 upset of No. 10 Kentucky.

"Georgia is playing great basketball," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "They had won nine in a row before they went to Vanderbilt and gave a great effort (in a 73-66 loss) at Memorial Gym, then they followed that up with a conference road win (at Ole Miss)."

As Vol fans are acutely aware, Tennessee runs hot and cold. The Vols won their first seven games, then lost six of the next 10. They carry an 11-6 overall record and a 1-2 league mark into tonight's game.

Tennessee might be able to prevail tonight if all of the Vols approach the game with the determination and intensity Tatum plans to bring. He hasn't forgotten last year's loss in Athens ... mostly because the home folks won't let him.

"It's always tough to go home and lose in front of your hometown fans," he said, "so now I'll go back and look for redemption."

GAME NOTES: Georgia's only starter from out of state is Nashville native Gerald Robinson, a transfer from Tennessee State University who is averaging 13.9 points and a team-high 4.4 assists per game.... The Bulldogs shoot better than Tennessee from the field (46.7 percent to 43.8 percent) but are worse from 3-point range (31.3 percent to 32.4 percent) and from the foul line (67.9 percent to 68.4 percent).... Tonight's game will be regionally televised by ESPNU with a 7 o'clock tipoff.... Associate head coach Tony Jones again will serve as UT's bench coach as Pearl continues serving an eight-game suspension.... Pearl did not make the trip to Athens, since the Vols elected not to practice at Stegeman Coliseum on Monday evening.... Asked on Monday's SEC teleconference if Tennessee's defeat of Vanderbilt made his suspension easier to tolerate, Pearl deadpanned: "The only thing that makes it easier is that I've only got five more games to sit out."

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