Not to say I told you so – I didn’t actually make a prediction – but I did sort of hint around. Georgia is two-fifths of the way to an SEC championship. To win, it would have to beat Kentucky today, Auburn or Alabama tomorrow and then Tennessee/Mississippi State/Florida/Arkansas on Sunday. The Bulldogs are 4-6 against those teams. They’ll need to go 3-0.
They need to win five games in five days. Georgia hasn’t won three consecutive games over any span since December. By beating Missouri on Thursday, these Bulldogs matched their longest in-league winning streak – at two. Even after spotting Mizzou 10 points and outplaying the Tigers over the next 33 minutes, they were still within a Kassius Robertson trey in the final three seconds (and he had a nice look) from losing.
Those are reasons it might not happen. Here are reasons it might.
1. Kentucky is overrated. The Wildcats were 0-5 against the SEC’s top three seeds. They were lucky to beat Georgia in Rupp Arena on Dec. 31. That night, the Big Blue made only 31.5 percent of their shots and trailed with five minutes remaining. Nicolas Claxton and Teshaun Hightower – the freshmen who were, after Yante Maten, Georgia’s second- and third-best players against Missouri – worked a total of 11 minutes in Lexington, scoring an aggregate two points.
2. Jarred Vanderbilt, another freshman, didn’t play for Kentucky on New Year’s Eve. He didn’t play a minute until the South Carolina game Jan. 16. He has since become the Wildcats’ best rebounder. (He just had 15 in a game against Missouri.) He’s not expected to play today because of an ankle injury.
3. Georgia under Mark Fox has come so close so many times against Kentucky with so little to show for it – he’s 2-15 against the Wildcats, having lost the past 10; his most recent victory came March 7, 2013, against a Kentucky team that would lose to Robert Morris in the NIT – that the Bulldogs are way past overdue. And the Wildcats, win or lose today, are headed to the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs must keep winning. As Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said: “They’re playing for something.”
4. They’re also playing well. The Bulldogs we’ve seen in St. Louis bear only the slightest resemblance to that crew that went 120 February minutes against Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Auburn without taking a lead. The freshmen – count Rayshaun Hammonds among that number – have become key performers. Over a four-game stretch in February, Hightower played a total of 17 minutes; he logged 22 against Mizzou on Thursday. Right now, Georgia’s best lineup includes three freshmen, two of whom don’t start. This isn’t the team of January and February. If it were, it would be gone by now.
5. Yante Maten, great all season, has been even greater here. He’s having a James-Forrest-in-Charlotte sort of week.
6. By giving its freshmen more minutes, Georgia has become a deeper team. That’s a big deal if you need to play five games in five days. There’s no way the Bulldogs won’t eventually get tired, but it was significant that eight of them worked at least 11 minutes Thursday.
7. We say again: Something like this happened for a much lesser Georgia team in 2008. Those Bulldogs entered the SEC tournament at 13-16; they’d won twice since Jan. 19. They won four games in four days.
This is college basketball, and this is March. Strange things happen. A very strange thing could be happening here.