The short answer: Yes, Georgia can beat Kentucky.
The inevitable disclaimer: There’s a gap between “can” and “will.”
Kentucky is two games from completing an undefeated regular season, something no Kentucky team has done since 1954. (Those Wildcats went 25-0 but didn’t play in the SEC or the NCAA tournaments because their three stars — Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey and Lou Tsioropoulos — were declared ineligible for having already graduated and Adolph Rupp declined to continue with a lesser squad.) This is one of the better Kentucky teams ever, which is saying something, but that’s not to say it can’t lose tomorrow in Athens.
Georgia isn’t a great team — it lost at home to Auburn and South Carolina — but it’s in a nice spot: It knows enough about Kentucky not to be shocked by the Wildcats’ depth of talent, and the Bulldogs’ Feb. 3 loss in Rupp Arena actually served as a pick-me-up. Without leading scorer/rebounder Marcus Thornton, Georgia trailed only 63-58 inside the final two minutes.
Thornton has returned to health, and so has J.J. Frazier, the third guard who stands to be the key to this team’s fortunes in the month ahead. It was no coincidence that Frazier was hurt late in the Auburn game and missed the subsequent loss to South Carolina. This is a guard-powered team, but the guards work in different ways.
Charles Mann isn’t much of a shooter but can drive and get fouled; Kenny Gaines is an OK shooter who can drive, too; Frazier is the guy with range who forces opponents to think twice about playing zone to blunt the penetration of Mann and Gaines. (Three Frazier treys were the determinant on the February day that Tennessee frustrated Georgia with a match-up zone for 30 minutes.)
Kentucky can really defend, but Georgia isn’t easy to guard. The Wildcats will have to play smaller than usual — against Arkansas on Saturday, their starting five measured 6-foot-6, 6-6, 6-10, 6-11 and 7-foot — and one of the reasons they’re unbeaten is that they’re capable of such adjustments. But the Bulldogs already know they won’t beat Kentucky from the lane. They’ll have to do it outside-in.
It has been a while — not since Feb. 10, when Kentucky trailed by six points late at LSU — between tests for the Wildcats. They’ve been overwhelming, but Georgia isn’t often overwhelmed. The Bulldogs have been waiting for Kentucky to come to Stegeman Coliseum for two full years, and they’re not the team with the unbeaten season on the line. I would be surprised if this isn’t a close game. I wouldn’t be stunned if Georgia wins.