January 13, 2012

Djurisic making headway

Freshman Nemanja Djurisic likes a good challenge.

Tell him he can't, he'll tell you he can. Tell him no, and he'll tell you, yes.

"I've just always liked being the underdog," the native of Podgorica, Montenegro said Friday. "It gets me ready … it gives me the motivation to play hard."

As part of a cast of youngsters who make up the 2011-2012 Georgia squad, the underdog role is certainly something the Bulldogs (9-7, 0-2) know a good deal about.

Saturday in Nashville (4 p.m., SEC Network), Georgia has the challenge of facing 12-4 Vanderbilt, a team with four returning starters which many expect to challenge Kentucky for the SEC crown.

The young Bulldogs, meanwhile, are learning that life in the SEC can be an unforgiving place to try and earn your conference stripes, although whatever progress Georgia is able to enjoy, no doubt Djurisic will play an important role.

Since the recent knee injury to sophomore Marcus Thornton, Djurisic has seen his minutes on the court explode, as he's averaged just over 31 minutes in three of the Bulldogs' past four games.

He's also producing.

After scoring in double-figures just twice in Georgia's first 12 games, Djurisic has tallied 10-plus points in three of the past four, including both of the Bulldogs' first two SEC contests against Alabama (10) and Florida (14.).

"(The added time on the court) has really given me a lot of confidence," Djurisic said. "Because I'm spending more time on the court, I'm learning more about the game. It's helped me in every way. Right now I'm just trying to play as hard as I can."

It helps that Djurisic is finally healthy.

Head coach Mark Fox said the 6-foot-8, 230-pounder played virtually all of November and December with a sore knee, but now that he's healthy, has been able to take advantage of the opportunity he now has.

"He's finally healthy so I think what you're seeing in him is he's playing more mature and because of that he's being more productive," Fox said. "He's more productive because he feels better, and like he says, is getting that experience."

But Djurisic is learning that life in the SEC isn't for the faint of heart. Banging in the paint with players bigger and more physical than he currently is, isn't easy - at least not yet.

"I never realized how tough and how physical it is," he said. "I'm still trying to adjust."

Then again, like Djurisic said, he loves a challenge.

"I think I'm a very tough underdog," he said. "If you don't think I'm good enough, I will show you."

It seems Djurisic has always been that way.

"In high school, we played a lot of good teams against some very good players who are playing at big schools," he said. "I always wanted to show that I had a good game and how good I could be in those situations. For the most part, that's what I was able to do."

NOTES: Last season Georgia posted its best conference record in eight years, going 9-7 and tying for third place in the Eastern Division. A key factor in their success was the Bulldogs' performance on the road, where they won four conference games, seven overall, to post the program's best road record since 1995. … Georgia continues to be led in scoring by freshman guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at 14.2 points per game. The Greenville native also leads all Bulldogs in minutes (30.9/game) and steals (1.7/game). He is, in fact, the only Georgia player over the 30-minute mark and would be the first freshman since Sundiata Gaines (2005) to lead his team in playing time. … The Bulldogs' last win in Memorial Gym came six years ago, and Georgia is 11-46 all-time against Vanderbilt there. Georgia begins a 3-game homestand next Wednesday night against Tennessee with an 8 p.m. tipoff.