- By David Wellham For the AJC
Georgia’s wobbly NCAA Tournament hopes took a serious hit Wednesday with a disappointing loss at Vanderbilt, and the path to the postseason doesn’t get any less challenging with No. 8 Auburn coming to town Saturday.
In light of the Tigers’ 81-80 loss Wednesday against Texas A&M that halted a five-game winning streak, it’s likely the Bulldogs (13-10, 4-7 SEC) will encounter an angry, hungry Auburn (21-3, 9-2) squad. There’s also a chance that the Tigers’ top player, junior guard Bryce Brown, won’t play because of a right shoulder injury suffered against the Aggies.
It has been reported that the 6-foot-3 Brown – who is averaging 16.6 points per game -- will make the trip to Athens, but is questionable for the game. That could be a big break for Georgia, as Brown torched the Bulldogs for 28 points when the two teams met in mid-January.
“He was a real big difference-maker,” senior forward Yante Maten said of Brown, who grew up in Stone Mountain and played in high school at Columbia and Tucker. “We had them pretty silent in the first half, and he came out and made a 3 and kind of got them rolling. He was that momentum booster for them the last game.”
Coach Mark Fox said he anticipates Brown’s participation and added the high-scoring Tigers are an offensive force, especially beyond the 3-point arc, where they’re shooting 38 percent.
“They’re a great shooting team, and we’ll anticipate that everybody will play,” Fox said. “They have a team that has 3-point shooters across the board, essentially, and it’s an important part of what we’re going to do is defend the 3-point line. They’re also good in transition, so you have to make sure you play good offense.”
It’s clear, however, that Georgia needs to work on Georgia. After an encouraging 9-2 start, the Bulldogs have gone 4-8 and have lost five of their past six games, including dispiriting losses to Mississippi State (when they were outrebounded 37-20) and Vanderbilt (when Fox said, “Our defense has disappeared on us.).
“…We’ve got to get back to defending,” Fox said. “In the last two games we have not defended nearly to the level you need to win on the road or at home. We’ve got find a way to get them back to doing that.”
The Jan. 20 game between Georgia and Auburn stands as an appropriate illustration of the Bulldogs’ woes this season. After taking a 40-26 lead at the half, Georgia was blown out by Auburn in the final 20 minutes as the Tigers tallied 53 points to the Bulldogs’ 25 and posted a 79-65 victory.
“In the first half, we made a lot of shots and in the second half we didn’t,” said Fox. “Obviously, we can look back and learn from it. We’ve got to take better care of the ball. But they’ve got a team that’s very offensive, and their defense is underappreciated. It will be a game that requires us to play well at both ends.”
In many of its losses, Georgia either got off to a slow start and couldn’t catch up or couldn’t hold on to the lead. The Bulldogs are still paced by Maten, who’s averaging an SEC-leading 19.3 points per night, but aside from an occasional contribution by fellow big man Derek Ogbeide or wing Juwan Parker, he’s not getting a whole lot of help.
And with Brown possibly out Saturday, Tigers coach Bruce Pearl will no doubt lean a little more heavily on 6-5 guard Mustapha Heron (16.3 ppg), 5-10 guard Jared Harper (12.9 ppg) and 6-3 forward Desean Murray (11.2 ppg).
Point guard Turtle Jackson said Friday that neither he nor the team felt disturbed by the Bulldogs’ recent play, pointing out that there’s still some season left for a turnaround.
“I don’t feel it’s frustrating at all,” Jackson said. “The season’s not over yet we still can go out there and win every game left and go to the SEC tournament and still win. We are still young -- we just have to go out and win.”
For Fox, however, there is a degree of frustration, especially when it comes to playing defense.
“We’ve been a very good defensive team,” he said. “For a couple of years in a row, we’ve been a good defensive team and at times this year we’ve been very good defensively. But we haven’t been very good the last week and I’m frustrated with that, no question.”