It’s wrong to belittle Georgia for holding third place in the 14-team SEC. What were the Bulldogs supposed to do? Aim squarely at the 11th-place finish projected for them in a preseason media poll? Tank games so they could finish in the draft lottery?
“We’ve had to beat a lot of people,” coach Mark Fox said Tuesday night in Knoxville, just after his third-place team lost 67-48 to Tennessee, which entered the game in a four-way tie for fifth. “Everyone else is on scholarship. Everyone else is putting big money into their program.”
That’s true. Trouble is, only two schools in the 14-team SEC are getting bang for this season’s basketball buck. Florida might well be the nation’s best team. Kentucky, while not as good as advertised, still is a force. But beyond that lies mediocrity, or worse.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projects four SEC teams in his NCAA tournament field of 68, with Missouri and Tennessee making it as bubble-licious No. 11 seeds. CBS Sports puts the SEC seventh in conference RPI, behind the Atlantic 10 and the lessened Big East. Not to be cruel, but 14-11 Georgia, which was 6-6 against non-conference opposition, wouldn’t hold third place in late February in any other major league.
That’s not to say the Bulldogs’ SEC surge hasn’t been admirable. They’ve beaten Missouri, Alabama, Arkansas, LSU, Texas A&M and Ole Miss — all picked to finish ahead of them. They’re 8-5 in league play with five games to go, and the best any Georgia team has done in conference play over Fox’s first four seasons was the 9-7 of 2010-11, when the Bulldogs made the NCAA as a No. 10 seed. When Fox said, “I’ve enjoyed this team more than any of the ones I’ve had here,” he has reason.
Georgia plays to its strengths, such as they are. Five of the top nine players are 6-foot-7 or taller, and the Bulldogs rebound with fury. (The Tennessee game marked the first time Georgia had been outrebounded in league play.) Guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines are quick and strong, and their ability to drive the lane has resulted in the Bulldogs taking more free throws in conference games than any other SEC team.
As Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin noted of the Bulldogs: “That isn’t a team that’s going to stand there and shoot 3-pointers. They get into the lane and force action.”
If you watch Georgia play, you’ll see that what basketball men have said for a while now — that Fox is indeed a skilled X-and-O man — remains true. The Bulldogs run clever little inside curls and are adept at clearing lanes for Mann and Gaines. They don’t take a lot of bad shots. They just aren’t very good shooters. (They rank 10th in the SEC in scoring, 11th in field-goal percentage.)
“The kids have really bought into our way of playing, our way of functioning,” Fox said. “And they’re doing it without the best player in our league.”
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was the SEC’s 2012-13 player of the year. He left after his sophomore season to enter the NBA draft and was taken with the No. 8 pick by Detroit, making him the second-highest draftee among Bulldogs ever (after Dominique Wilkins, No. 3 in 1982). Without Caldwell-Pope, the belief here was that Georgia, which was only 15-17 with KCP, would go hungry. The non-conference flailing seemed to prove the point. But when league play began, the Bulldogs started to play a little.
In a conference where nobody except the top two stands out, cohesion and harmony can go a long way. Said assistant coach Jonas Hayes, who was part of some excellent Georgia teams in 2002 and 2003: “Our guys really like playing with each other.”
Fox: “We have a very healthy locker room. We have very good chemistry.”
Even the schedule helped, albeit in an odd way. Georgia had to play both Florida and Kentucky once each, both of them on the road. Seeing as how the Bulldogs weren’t apt to beat either one anywhere, it was better not to have those games become home losses. Georgia is 6-1 in SEC games at Stegeman Coliseum, the blip against Vanderbilt coming on a night Gaines didn’t play because of injury.
But now we ask: What would a third-place finish in a two-team league buy the Bulldogs? Probably not an NCAA at-large bid. They have an RPI of 92, which doesn’t even merit bubble talk. But a solid finish could put Georgia in the NIT, which would mark their first such appearance under Fox. And that, coming after three losing seasons in this coach’s first four and in Year 1 after Caldwell-Pope, would be something of an achievement. An overachievement, you’d have to say.