After losing five of their first seven SEC games, the Bulldogs inserted Mike Mercer into the starting lineup. The 6-4, 180-pound freshman proved to be something of a catalyst, helping the Dawgs beat Alabama 88-79 in Athens and Vanderbilt 74-73 in Nashville. The two-game winning streak has boosted Georgia's record to 14-8 overall and 4-5 in the league, reviving its hopes for post-season play.
That's why UT coach Bruce Pearl cautions that this is a more dangerous team than the one Tennessee beat 89-76 on Jan. 11 in Knoxville.
"Georgia is playing really good basketball right now, great at home," the coach said, adding that "The final margin at Knoxville didn't reflect the way the game went."
Indeed. The Bulldogs shot 57.7 percent from the field and 57.1 percent from 3-point range in the first half of the earlier meeting. They held Chris Lofton scoreless during that first 20 minutes and trailed by just four points at the break.
Fortunately for Tennessee, Lofton scored 16 second-half points and UT tightened its defense, enabling the home-standing Vols to pull away a bit in the closing minutes.
Like UT, Georgia is very strong on the perimeter. The top scorer is 6-2 guard Levi Stukes (12.2 points per game). He has made 12 of his 20 attempts from 3-point range over a three-game stretch. Guards Sundiata Gaines and Mercer chip in 10.9 points per game each. The versatile Gaines leads the Dawgs in rebounds (5.2 per game) and assists (3.7 per game). He scored 17 in the earlier meeting with Tennessee, while Mercer chipped in 15.
Eleventh-ranked Tennessee (17-3 overall, 8-1 SEC) has won six consecutive conference games, the first time that has happened since 1998-99. In addition, the Vols' 8-1 league start is their best since opening 9-0 in 1981-82.
As is always the case for UT, the backboards will be a key. Georgia ranks second among the 12 SEC teams in offensive rebounding, grabbing an average of 13.77 per game.