This state has been a wasteland in college basketball for too long. High school talent leaves. The NCAA Tournament is a distant rumor, like Sasquatch. The state’s annual rivalry between Georgia and Georgia Tech — kind of like the Duke-North Carolina beast after liposuction.
The Jackets embraced two highlights Tuesday night. The first came during a timeout with 15:22 left in their game against the Bulldogs when the video board at McCamish Pavilion showed highlights of Tech’s recent football upset in Athens and paraded a number of players and the Governors Trophy onto the court. The second came with 2:03 left when the basketball team broke 40.
So, yeah — if you’re already working on your NCAA Tournament bracket, pencil in Tech under “first four out.” No, literally, of 351 college basketball teams, I would put the Jackets as one of the first four out.
As for Georgia, could it be that there is … hope?
Yes. The Bulldogs weren’t great Tuesday night. They seemed out of sorts, missed shots and were kind of a mess emotional in the first half. But they led Tech by nine points at halftime despite making only 11 of 35 shots, including 2 of 11 from three-point range. They went on to win easily 60-43, thereby registering a road win against an ACC team, which sounds a lot better than saying they beat a Tech team that may struggle to win a conference game.
Georgia is 8-3, has won three in a row and seems a bit less wobbly than it was after a loss to Marquette two weeks ago. Ready for SEC play?
“We’re close but I don’t think we’re there yet,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “There’s still significant growth on our team we need to make. We have to be more consistent (offensively) with more guys on our team. It has to be a little more by committee with whoever our third and fourth scorers are. We have too many errors still that in a league game will cost you.”
Georgia won easily on a night when its two best players, Yante Maten and J.J. Frazier, were not at their best. Maten said he was too emotional early and struggled to adjust to Tech’s physical play.
“They’re a rough and rowdy bunch,” Maten said, and that might be one of the nicer things Tech coach Josh Pastner hears about his team this season.
Frazier said the Dogs struggled to adjust to Tech’s triangle-and-two zone defense: “That set us back a couple of years.”
But Tech isn’t Kentucky. Tech isn’t Florida or Vanderbilt or Texas A&M, teams Georgia must beat to make an impression on the NCAA Tournament committee, because this is a big season for them and for Fox.
It’s rare that there are expectations for a college basketball team in the state but this is one of them. Maten and Frazier are two of the conference’s best players and Georgia has some depth, assuming it develops and other scoring options become obvious.
Fox has won 20 or 21 games and posted winning records in the SEC three consecutive seasons, but there was justified heat on him last season when Georgia didn’t make it into the NCAA Tournament. The fact his contract runs through 2020 doesn’t scream he’s on the firing line if Georgia fails to make it into the tournament but it would be a topic of loud discussion.
The Dogs, who play at Oakland (Michigan) Friday before opening SEC play Dec. 29 at Auburn, have had a tendency under Fox to not do well in non-conference games early in the season. That trend continued with losses to Clemson and Marquette, both of which had lower RPI rankings (72 and 91, respectively) than UNC-Asheville (62), which the Bulldogs beat.
At least Fox has corrected this series. Tech, down for years, had won four in a row until Georgia won last year in Athens. Tuesday’s win was a given. Expectations are so low at Tech that, according to Pastner, former athletic director Mike Bobinski told him during the interview process, “You might not win a game. Can you handle not winning a game in the ACC in your first year?”
Pastner, coming off the other end of expectations at Memphis, said, “Of course, I told him yes at the time. … I haven’t been through that. I just have to remind myself will look different in Year 3 than it will in Year 1.”
The parallels with Georgia are remarkable. There are modestly high expectations for the Bulldogs this season that include an NCAA Tournament appearance. Fox recalled recently that when he took over a bankrupt program from Dennis Felton, former school president Michael Adams told him, “This is going to take you over a decade (to build).”
Fox: “And I looked at him (thinking), ‘Are you serious?’ … We probably had deeper-seeded problems than maybe I understood at the time.”
But that was seven years ago. Time’s up. One of the Georgia schools needs to be relevant come March.
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