Missouri, Georgia open conference schedule tonight

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Frank Haith isn’t paying attention.

Not to the Georgia Bulldogs’ record, at least.

“When you get into conference play it’s a new season,” the Missouri head coach said as his 21st-ranked Tigers (12-1) open Southeastern Conference play against the Georgia Bulldogs (6-6) at 7 p.m. today at Mizzou Arena. “… Games are tight when you get into conference play. None of it really matters what you did in non-league. Teams say, ‘Hey, this is a new season. Now we get ourselves a new life.’ I expect Georgia to come in here and play aggressive. We have to be ready to play.”

Georgia didn’t exactly set the world on fire in non-conference play. The Bulldogs can’t hang their hats on any marquee wins and have suffered losses to two sub-.500 teams in Davidson and Temple.

“The thing that has been disappointing about our team and has led to inconsistent performances has been the inconsistency of our defense and rebounding,” said Georgia head coach Mark Fox, whose father passed away Monday. “We have not been really consistently effective in those two areas. That’s critical to win.

“You have to be very good in the dirty work areas, and we have not been. This is probably the first team I’ve ever had that’s not been consistent there. The good news is these are areas that can be fixed.”

Georgia averages 71.8 points per game, which is good for 198th in the nation. Still, that’s a vast improvement over last year’s squad that averaged 61 ppg, even with shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the No. 8 pick in the NBA Draft, in the lineup.

Sophomore guard Charles Mann leads Georgia with 13 ppg, while guard Kenny Gaines adds 11.5 ppg and Djurisic Nemanja contributes 10.8 ppg.

“We’re a better offensive team this year than we were last year,” Fox said. “We’re a team that has more people scoring, we’re more efficient. You don’t quite replace the No. 8 pick in the draft. I thought by committee we’d be a better offensive team, and we think that’s proven to be fairly true. Where we haven’t replaced him is on the defensive end and on the glass. That’s where we miss Kentavious.”

Georgia grabs just 35.8 rebounds per game, good for 178th in the nation. The Bulldogs allow 69.6 ppg.

That might bode well for Missouri, a team that averages 76.2 ppg (99th in the nation) and 39.7 rebounds (37th in the nation). Those numbers overshadow the Tigers’ defensive efforts, as they allow just 65.1 ppg.

“I think they’re playing really well together and they’ve got terrific defensive numbers,” Fox said. “I think that’s sometimes overlooked because they’re playing well on the offensive end. Certainly a great challenge to open SEC play.”

Added Haith: “I look at our numbers, we’re much better than we were last year. We’re holding teams to 38 percent from the floor, 27 percent from 3, and I think a large part of that has to do with our length on the perimeter.”

Jordan Clarkson continues to be the catalyst that makes the Missouri offense go. The junior point guard averages 19.3 points and 4.1 assists per game.

“We knew he was a very capable player, but there’s no doubt that he has exceeded my expectations thus far,” Haith said. “How well he’s played, how consistently he’s played has been a little bit of a surprise. But he’s such a hard worker. He’s such a joy to coach because he does exactly what you tell him to do. He’s one of those kids, he wants to please you, and I love the way he goes after the game. That’s what gives him a chance to be the kind of player he is because he works at it, and he’s very humble. Like I said, he wants to do well for you, but he believes in himself. What a joy, what a treat he’s been so far.”

Jabari Brown adds 18.4 points and 5.2 rebounds while Earnest Ross contributes 14 points and 6.5 rebounds.

Missouri is coming off a solid non-conference portion of the schedule that saw the Tigers pick up wins against then-ranked UCLA at home and North Carolina State on the road.

“We’re excited about getting into conference play,” Haith said. “We had a really good nonconference season. We understand it’s a little different when you get into conference play. It’s a new season, and we’re excited about that next step for us, and we get a Georgia team coming here (today) I think will play extremely hard. They’re well-coached, and we’ve got to get ourselves ready to compete.”

Notes: Georgia’s other losses are to Georgia Tech, Nebraska, Colorado and George Washington. The Bulldogs’ win have come against Wofford, Appalachian State, Chattanooga, Lipscomb, Gardner-Webb and Western Carolina.

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