Still, Georgia’s second-year coach has reasons to smile.
“Obviously, I’m not pleased with the level we’re playing at, but I’m pleased with the effort we’re putting into getting better,” Dennis Felton said. “More days than not I’ve been pleased with the progress we’ve made because of that effort.”
The problem for Georgia is its progress can’t be measured in any tangible way. The Bulldogs’ lack of experience and skill makes it difficult for them to score and defend even when they do everything precisely as they’re coached to do it. Their only SEC win of the season came against Vanderbilt, and they haven’t come close to a win since then.
Their task won’t get any easier after Felton learned this week that sophomore guard Levi Stukes, the team’s top scorer (15.7 ppg), will miss two weeks and possibly more due to a severely sprained ankle. Stukes will be reevaluated in two weeks, Felton said, but, for now, the Bulldogs must figure out how to proceed without him.
“We realize that we’re getting a little better every game, but it does get a little frustrating when you’re not getting the wins,” forward Steve Newman said.
The challenge for the Georgia coaching staff is to keep its young team from becoming so demoralized that it stops getting any better at all.
“They’re so young that losing the game, they could miss the point …that we are doing some things well,” Felton said. “They could be blinded by the fact that we lost the game.”
The Bulldogs (7-13, 1-9 SEC) face the most blinding force in the conference today, when they take on No. 5 Kentucky (18-2, 9-0) at 3 p.m. in Rupp Arena. Kentucky has won 18 straight and 44 of its last 47 SEC games. Two of those losses came against Georgia, but that was a Georgia team that boasted veterans like Rashad Wright, Jonas Hayes, Chris Daniels and Damien Wilkins.
“No one gave us a chance last year, and we surprised people,” Newman said. “This game is going to be a little more difficult because we don’t have that great leadership we had last year, but hopefully if we come in and play our best, we’ll have a chance to win.”
They probably should just settle for taking another baby step or two. The Bulldogs have held their last two opponents to 62 or fewer points and have also held their own in the rebounding statistics, which is a big change from earlier in the season. In short, they’re making progress.
“When we do everything the way we’re supposed to, and it just doesn’t quite work out, there’s still something to feel gratified about,” Felton said. “It’s better than the alternative.”
Still, it’s not what they want.
“It’s better than just coming out there and not playing well at all and getting blown out,” Newman said. “It would still be better to get the W.”
GEORGIA at KENTUCKY
Time/place: Today, 3 p.m., Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.
Broadcast: Jefferson-Pilot Television/106.1-FM
Record/rankings: Georgia 7-13 (1-9 SEC), No. 5 Kentucky 18-2 (9-0 SEC)
About Georgia: The Bulldogs have only won four times in 54 tries in Lexington, but two of those wins have come in the last three years. … Georgia has yet to win any game this year on an opponent’s home floor. … Center Dave Bliss has become the first Georgia freshman to get 100 rebounds since Jumaine Jones did it in 1998. … The Bulldogs lost the season’s first meeting with Kentucky 76-55 in Athens on Jan. 15.
About Kentucky: Junior guard Patrick Sparks, who played his first two seasons for Georgia coach Dennis Felton at Western Kentucky, is in a shooting slump by his standards. Sparks is the Wildcats’ second-leading scorer with more than 11 points per game, but he has hit just 15 of 45 shots in the last four games. Still, Felton think Sparks is as dangerous as any shooter in the SEC. “I don’t think Patrick Sparks knows what a shooting slump is,” Felton said. “I don’t care how many shots he’s missed, I would never consider him being in a slump. I always think the next shot he takes is going in. I can’t imagine anyone at his age, ever, except for maybe Pete Maravich, taking more (practice) shots than Patrick Sparks.” … Kelenna Azubuike is the Wildcats leading scorer with 14.6 points per game. Forward Chuck Hayes is their leading rebounder with nine per game.
Scouting report: The Wildcats are experienced and talented, and the Bulldogs are not. Georgia enters today what will be its toughest challenge in a season full of obstacles. A win would rank among the biggest upsets in the history of the SEC, but it is very unlikely, particularly since Georgia will be playing without Levi Stukes (ankle) and his 15.7 points per game. In the first meeting between these two teams this year, Stukes played and Kentucky still won by 21 points… in Athens. “You really get excited about getting to play a team like Kentucky not just because they are once against the best team in the conference but because they are routinely the best team in the conference. It is always just a great, great atmosphere to play in. It would be really, really gratifying to all of us and obviously it would do a lot for all of our… It could certainly help us turn a corner.
Next: Georgia vs. Clemson, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., Greenville, S.C.; Kentucky at South Carolina, Tuesday, 9 p.m.