In two regular-season games, Kentucky and Georgia played competitive and entertaining basketball. UK won twice: once in overtime thanks to a 37-point starburst by Malik Monk and once with a late rally that overcame J.J. Frazier’s 36-point brilliance.
Going into Friday’s quarterfinal matchup in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, the two coaches recalled those games in starkly different ways.
Kentucky Coach John Calipari saw Georgia as a worthy opponent that had proven its ability to win the third meeting.
“Look, Georgia had us both games,” he said Thursday. In reviewing the overtime victory on Jan. 31, Calipari said, “We were down with 50 seconds to go. So I know how good they are. I know how well-coached they are.”
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Plus, Calipari added, Georgia’s All-SEC forward, Yante Maten, returned to play against Tennessee on Thursday for the first time since spraining a knee against UK in the Feb. 18 game.
“He’s one of the better four-threes in our league,’ Calipari said, “and a 20-point scorer. It’ll be a war. They all are this time (of year).”
Georgia Coach Mark Fox dismissed the suggestion that twice playing Kentucky competitively held significance.
“But they’re different now,” he said. “They’re at their best now. They’re complete. They can get to the rim. They can shoot the three. They can post up and score. They’ve got depth. They’re very organized.
“I mean, they can win it (the national championship).”
Then Fox repeated that last assertion. “They can win it,” he said. “John won’t tell you that, but they can win it. How we played them didn’t work, so we’ll have to do something different.”
This begged a question: If Kentucky was so good, how did Georgia come within a last-second jumper by Monk from winning in Rupp Arena, and then play UK within five points in Athens?
“My nephew didn’t play in the first game,” said the Georgia coach in a joking reference to UK point guard De’Aaron Fox. And, in the second game, “We were at home and J.J. was hot as a firecracker.”
In Georgia’s 59-57 victory over Tennessee on Thursday, Maten played 26 minutes off the bench and scored 12 points. It his was his first game action since he sprained his right knee against UK on Feb. 18.
“This was the goal to be back at this time,” Maten said. “I just thank God I was able to get back to where I was.”
Fox tempered his enthusiasm about Maten’s return.
“I thought Yante was actually pretty good,” the Georgia coach said. “I thought our team was a little out of rhythm (by) bringing him back.”
Maten’s return meant different substitution patterns and an overall adjustment to how Georgia had played the previous three weeks.
“The whole thing was not as smooth as I would like,” Fox said. “But I thought he was solid.”
Kentucky owned the boards in the two games against Georgia. In the first game, UK enjoyed a 45-32 rebounding advantage. That translated into a 24-3 landslide in second-chance points.
In the second game, Kentucky out-rebounded Georgia 41-26.
“Crushed us on the glass,” Fox said of the second game. “Kentucky’s got as complete a team as there is in the country. We’re going to have to rebound the ball. But we’re going to have to do a lot of other things, too.”
When asked how a victory over Kentucky might sway opinion on the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, Fox said, “I don’t know what the committee thinks of our team. If you want to really study it, our team has a lot of selling points today.”
Fox said he meant, in part, Georgia’s Ratings Percentage Index of No. 53 going into Thursday’s play.
“Obviously, if we can steal one tomorrow, that’s just another big plus for us,” Fox said.
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi said Wednesday that UK, Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas and Vanderbilt will get bids to the NCAA Tournament.
“Short of a complete run by an underdog in dramatic fashion in the tournament, those are the five we’ll be talking about,” he said.
Maten sprained his knee when UK’s Isaiah Briscoe fell into his leg.
When asked what the play looked like when he watched a replay, Maten said, “It looked like it felt like. Like it hurt because it did hurt.
“But I was just thankful it was what it was because it could have been a lot worse.”