These were teams separated by one seeding spot – No. 12 against No. 13 – and by a river as wide as the mighty Mississippi in talent. Georgia was too good to have been in this game. Vanderbilt never was really in this game.
Playing for their coach’s continuing employment, the Bulldogs treated Vandy the way a good team should treat a 20-game loser. They won 78-62. It wasn’t that close. Georgia led 10-0, then 32-13, then 41-16. And here we note: When these teams met Feb. 6 in Nashville, this same Georgia never led and lost by 15.
Flip that result, and the Bulldogs wouldn’t have been playing on the first night of the five-day SEC tournament, but there it was and here they were. Almost nothing about Georgia’s season made sense. It was 11-3 on Jan. 6, as safe a bet as any band of Bulldogs ever to make the NCAA tournament. It would finish the regular season 16-14 lugging an RPI of 83, which means its only Dance chance involves not just making a run here but going 5-0 over five days.
So: One down, four to go. In this first half, Georgia was so overwhelming as to make you wonder if such a feat could really be considered a hope-against-hope. The Bulldogs made 52.9 percent of their shots and 55.6 percent of their 3-pointers. They outrebounded Vandy 22-17. They had 10 assists against two turnovers. They blocked six Commodore shots and made three steals. Indeed, the 13th seed worked the first five minutes without hoisting a shot that had any chance of going in.
Then again, this was Vanderbilt. Over the regular season, it was 1-12 in games away from Memorial Gym, with the “1” coming Saturday at Ole Miss, which is working without its head coach. Vandy belonged among the first night’s motley gaggle. Georgia had only itself to blame for having to work two days before Auburn, Tennessee, Florida and Kentucky get around to playing.
But this is a tournament, and tournaments can be weird. No program knows that better than this. Ten years ago in Atlanta, Georgia won as many games in the SEC tournament (four) as it had in the conference season and had to face down a tornado and a change of venue to do it. Then as (apparently) now, the Bulldogs seemed prepared to fire their coach. Dennis Felton wound up in the NCAA tournament, somewhere he’d never been while coaching Georgia, and his streaking squad gave No. 3 seed Xavier a stirring run in Washington D.C. before succumbing.
This Georgia team is way better than that one, or it should have been. Georgia has the SEC’s player of the year, according to the Associated Press, which no No. 12 seed has ever boasted. There have been many nights this season when the Bulldogs were life-and-death to break 60 points. They had 63 here with 11 minutes remaining. They’re now acclimated with the floor and the rims at Scottrade Center, and they appeared to enjoy the experience. And sometimes a team that arrives at Day 2 off a victory, as opposed to a bye, has a feeling of momentum that can’t come with sitting around a hotel.
Then again, this was Vandy. Thursday afternoon’s opponent will be Missouri, which had a surprisingly strong season given that it worked without the conference’s presumptive best player – the ballyhooed freshman Michael Porter Jr. – for only two minutes of the season opener. He’s supposed to play against Georgia, and that should be fascinating. He’s nowhere near game shape, but not so long ago he was considered the near-peer of Duke’s Marvin Bagley III in the race for best one-and-done. (Bagley, we note, was the ACC’s player of the year.)
Fox on the difficulty of preparing for Missouri with Porter: “We don’t even know what position they play’ll him at.”
Vandy couldn’t guard Georgia, which should have come as no surprise: The Commodores were last in the league in field-goal-percentage defense and 3-point percentage defense. Mizzou was third in the former category, fifth in the latter. The Tigers ranked only 10th among 14 SEC teams in scoring – Georgia was last – but that was without Porter, and Cuonzo Martin’s teams have never been pretty on offense. Also, the game will be played in Missouri. This won’t be easy.
Then again, it shouldn’t be unwinnable. Since flatlining in three consecutive double-digit losses to Mississippi State, Vandy and Auburn, the Bulldogs have beaten Florida, beaten Tennessee and LSU. They coulda/shoulda beaten Texas A&M and Tennessee last week. They aren’t playing badly. But their mottled season has left them with no room – none, zero, zilch – for error. The only way they make the NCAA field is to win this event. The only way Fox stays is as an SEC champ.
That’s still a long, long shot. But it’s one game closer to happening than it was Wednesday morning.