There were a number of goals for this season, but this wasn’t one of them: Kentucky on Friday.
Maybe Kentucky in the finals, with everything else falling into place this season. Maybe Kentucky in the semis, with an NCAA berth already secure and Georgia merely seeking a better seed.
But this season hasn’t unfolded the way Mark Fox anticipated, so the Bulldogs are left needing a signature win in potentially the final game of their season to impress a bank of computers, a room of selection-committee members and a mass of doubters who’ve believed the season realistically has been over for weeks.
“I don’t care what people think,” Georgia guard J.J. Frazier said Thursday. “I mean, y’all can say what you want. It doesn’t matter to us. We believe in ourselves regardless of who we play. At the end of the day, if we play hard and give it everything we’ve got, we’ll live with the result.”
Georgia lost a number of games by a hiccup and/or a broken clock during the regular season. This time, it went the other way, as the Dogs opened play in the SEC tournament by winning a close one over Tennessee 59-57.
So congrats, Dogs. You’re in the Elite Eight. Of the SEC.
Georgia’s penance for a 9-9 conference record and a corresponding No. 8 seed this week. It must face another No. 8: Kentucky, which is ranked eighth nationally.
Can the Dogs win? Yes. But …
- The Wildcats aren’t going to shoot 19-for-58 from the floor as Tennessee did.
- The Wildcats won’t be clinging to a 27-26 halftime lead as Tennessee was if Georgia commits 10 first-half turnovers again.
- Kentucky isn’t likely to lose if Frazier is again uncommonly cold from the outside (4-for-13).
“They played the same defense everybody else has played for the last 25 games,” Frazier said of Tennessee. “I just missed shots, missed layups. It happens.”
Not often, actually. Frazier carried this team recently and often this season. But he won the game for the Dogs despite an off-night. He led them in scoring with 17 points, going 8-for-8 from the free-throw line. (He has made 32 consecutive free throws and 39 of 40 in the past four games.)
Get ready: He also led them in … rebounding.
Yes, at 5-foot-10, 155 pounds dripping wet and wearing ankle weights, Frazier grabbed 10 boards. That hasn’t happened since … “I had 11 against Seton Hall my sophomore year,” he said.
Not that he’s keeping track.
Georgia will need Frazier to do it all in the next game. The Bulldogs will be a heavy underdog amid a sea of blue in the quarterfinals of the Kentucky Invitational.
But, yes, they have a shot. Yante Maten, in his first game back in nearly three weeks after a knee sprain, made his first two shots Thursday and was better than expected, with 12 points, five rebounds and two blocks. Quoting: “I’m still a little ways off from where I want to be. Not in terms of pain. I can just play a lot better.”
Georgia also was strong on defense against Tennessee, including on the last possession, when the Volunteers had to work the possession to get an open shot just before the horn. Tennessee got the ball to Admiral Schofield outside the arc in the final seconds, but his shot was short, grazing the front of the rim.
It was another close game, a microcosm of the Dogs’ season, except this time Georgia won.
“The last two or three, we’ve been able to get a win,” Frazier said. “So maybe it’s balancing out.”
The Dogs also threw a scare into Kentucky twice this season: They led by two points with 10 seconds left in Lexington before Malik Monk made a jumper to send the game to overtime, when Kentucky nailed down the win. Georgia also led the Wildcats by a bucket in the final minute in Athens, but lost.
Asked if the teams draws confidence from those two games, Frazier said: “No. We lost. We don’t take moral victories.”
OK, right attitude.
If you’re looking for one more positive going into the Kentucky game, there’s this: As poorly as they played at times Thursday and as much they lost some games they should’ve won, they’ve never pulled apart this season, even against the backdrop of narrow defeats, Maten’s absence and questions about Fox’s future.
“We’re a family, and we talk about it,” Fox said. “This is about our players’ chance this year as a team. I told them that’s what we’re going to keep our focus on. We didn’t try to shield them from it. I don’t think that’s possible, anyway.”
Asked about Kentucky, he said, “If they get the right matchups (in the NCAA tournament), they can win the whole thing.”
Georgia is just trying to get into The Thing. Its RPI entering Thursday was 53. Its most impressive win came over Vanderbilt, which currently has an RPI of 45. Kentucky’s RPI is 7. Win this game, and the Dogs might just make it into the tournament that really matters.
It’s monumental task, but that’s the situation they created.