Lady Bulldogs ready for immediate test, chance to make statement vs. Mississippi State

Georgia women's basketball welcomes Mississippi State to town for a Thursday evening tip to open SEC play.

ATHENS, Ga. — It’s the classic, go-to question for a reporter ahead of any game of magnitude. It lacks originality. It’s not very creative.

What type of challenges does this big matchup present?

Geez. Why did that come to mind? I went to it when nothing else could be thought of.

“Is that a trick question?” Georgia head coach Joni Taylor said. “You’re trying to set me up.”

Ahh, my sincerest apologies. No set ups here. I knew exactly what would follow. Taylor went on to mention how each SEC contest is a challenge. That’s very true. Especially given the parity in the league this season — each of the 14 programs can state their case to compete.

“Honestly, I don't care which of the other 13 teams we play, it would've been a challenge,” Taylor said.

Yeah, yeah. You’re right. Carry on.

Georgia (8-0) welcomes Mississippi State to town on Thursday evening (6:30 p.m., SEC Network). The battle of the Bulldogs is expected to be a fun one. A clash between two experienced, talented teams to cap off 2020 before the fireworks begin around the Classic City.

Mississippi State, ranked 12th nationally, enters the SEC opener with a 5-1 record. The only blemish — along with a couple of pandemic-related cancellations — was an overtime loss to ranked South Florida.

“(Mississippi State head coach) Nikki (McCray-Penson) has a loaded team. A loaded roster,” Taylor said. “They're the No. 12 team in the country for a reason. We've got our hands full and we have to be sharp.”

Georgia enters conference play on the verge of recognition. The Lady Bulldogs finished an undefeated non-conference slate for the first time in a decade. The team touts four seniors and plenty of depth. But, still, the team is on the outside of the Associated Press (AP) Top 25 with 33 points. That’s good for the 26th ranking, 33 points behind undefeated Michigan State.

Georgia’s resume, along with the metrics, suggest that it should probably have a ranking attached to its name. Georgia has Power Five wins over Georgia Tech and Oklahoma. Georgia’s Rating Percentage Index (RPI) ranks sixth nationally, according to warrennolan.com.

According to a statistical crunch by Her Hoop Stats, the Lady Bulldogs’ suffocating defense also ranks among the best. Georgia ranks among the top 25 in field goal percentage, two-point field goal percentage, points per possession and points per scoring attempt.

Oh yeah, ESPN’s Charlie Creme lists Georgia as a No. 6 seed versus No. 11 BYU in his latest bracket projection update.

Inside Georgia’s program, all of it might be irrelevant. In fact, I can guarantee you that they’ll say it’s not a focus. The Lady Bulldogs might enjoy flying under the radar, per se.

There’s also no denying that after a strong run through non-conference play, that Georgia is itching for its first signature win.

“This is a great opportunity for us to get a win like that,” senior center Jenna Staiti said. “On our home floor, it makes a huge statement and that's what we need. We have a really good opportunity.”

For Georgia’s statement to be had, a tough Mississippi State team stands in its way. Under Mccray-Penson, a first-year head coach replacing Vic Schaefer, the Bulldogs do much of the same. They’re led by the usual suspects — at least over the last couple of seasons — in forwards Rickea Jackson and Jessika Carter.

Jackson leads the team with 17.5 points per game. Carter follows slightly behind at 17.3. Carter leads the team in rebounds with 8.3 per game, and Taylor has noticed improvements in her game with an enhanced ability to shoot jumpers and make free throws.

Taylor realizes the duo is Mississippi State’s backbone. That’s not to dismiss the maroon-colored Bulldogs’ guards. There’s the trio of Aliyah Matharu, JaMya Mingo-Young and Myah Taylor. On any given night, one of these backcourt players can “light up the page,” Taylor said.

Georgia expects Mississippi State to run plenty of dribble-drive offense. Mississippi State could also run isolation, Taylor said, to get its players touches if the dribble-drive approach doesn’t pan out. Nonetheless, it’s plenty for the Lady Bulldogs to prepare for.

“They're going to guard you hard, because they're aggressive and experienced,” Taylor said. “It's a high-level team.”

Thursday’s game could come down to a battle within the post. Georgia might have the advantage in depth. There’s an enhanced opportunity to match Mississippi State’s size and talent with Staiti and the likes of Javyn Nicholson and Malury Bates playing significant minutes off of the bench.

The fun and games are over. SEC play is here and the 16-game grind begins. Georgia kicks it off with a big-time matchup, and one that it is ready for.

If Georgia wants to prove its spot within the SEC, it starts Thursday. A veteran team is confident, too.

“It helps that we have four seniors starting who know what it's like to play in the SEC,” Staiti said. “We know what to expect. We know what comes before us.”