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Young Dawgs ready for SEC

ATHENS, Ga. -- Dustin Ware is a rarity among members of Georgia's basketball team -- the crusty old veteran who has significant experience in Southeastern Conference play.

The senior guard has started 45 conference games, joining fellow senior Gerald Robinson (15 starts) as the only Bulldogs to have started in league play.

While his youth-laden team already has played a month-long string of games between November and December that would simulate the difficulty of an SEC slate, Ware said there was only so much the newcomers could do to truly prepare for the conference grind.

"I think they understand, but they don't at the same time," said Ware, whose team opens SEC play Saturday night when it hosts Alabama (11-3). "They understand what's coming, but at the same time, they've never been through the grind of the SEC. It's going to be tough for them at first, but I think we've got several days to prepare and get ready, and I know we're going to work hard every single day to get ready to go out there and get some wins."

Although they enter the contest with Alabama on a five-game winning streak, the Bulldogs (9-5) endured a shaky first two months. Just before launching the recent winning streak -- mostly against small-conference opposition -- the Bulldogs had lost five of six while facing schools with more prominent basketball traditions.

Between Nov. 21 and Dec. 7, the Bulldogs faced California, Notre Dame, Xavier, Colorado, Cincinnati and Georgia Tech and defeated only Notre Dame. Included in that stretch were a 24-point loss to Cal, a 14-point loss to Xavier and Georgia's first home defeat against Tech in 35 years.

Although those two-plus weeks were an unpleasant time for the Bulldogs, Ware hopes the experience was helpful in preparing his young teammates. Among the nine active players averaging more than 10 minutes per game -- starting forward Marcus Thornton remains out with a foot injury suffered Dec. 23 against Furman -- six actually have played an SEC game.

"When we get to conference play, it's not going to be the first really good teams that we've seen," Ware said. "I think that will definitely help us out a lot and just give us a leg up. Obviously other teams have been out there playing good teams, too, but I think it gives us a leg up on some and puts us right there with others, as far as experience with tough teams."

Georgia struggled with tough and lesser teams alike in its pre-conference schedule. Most recently, the Bulldogs needed a miraculous final minute to tie Winthrop before winning 92-86 in overtime, and they struggled to put away Delaware State before finally earning a 58-51 victory.

Bulldogs coach Mark Fox fumed after the Delaware State game, telling reporters that the Bulldogs' recent level of play would be inadequate in the SEC.

"We can't play like that and compete in the SEC," Fox said. "We've got to grow up. I know our rotations are disjointed without Marcus and all that, but we need to saddle up and get ready."

Freshman swingman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is unquestionably the bright spot among the newcomers, leading the team in scoring (14.1 points per game) and steals (23) and ranking third with 5.3 rebounds.

The McDonald's All-American certainly will be a focal point as he faces SEC opposition for the first time, and Fox praised him for seamlessly fitting in with the team thus far.

"He's playing very well at both ends, and he's been a guy that's come in with a terrific approach. He came and had an attitude that he was going to join our team, not that our team was joining him," Fox said. "That's really allowed him to fit in, and he's been unbelievably coachable, and I think that's helped him make the transition, because I think he's always trying to learn and is not afraid to make mistakes. Therefore he keeps making progress."

Fox knows that progress must continue rapidly, as the Bulldogs follow Saturday's SEC opener against the Crimson Tide with back-to-back road dates against No. 13 Florida and Vanderbilt.

That would be a daunting opening slate for any team, much less one that is so inexperienced in league play.

He believes his young teammates will learn soon enough that the increased level of difficulty requires a level of focus they have not yet exhibited for any significant length of time.

"Old guys like me, we've seen a lot of different things, and we've got a lot of teams like that [in the SEC], so they're all familiar with you," Ware said. "But too, it's like a race to the finish line when it gets to conference play, so everyone's coming out every night playing hard and playing tough, and everyone wants to win every single night, so you have to bring it every night."

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.