Where was this Georgia basketball team all season?

ST. LOUIS – Mark Fox had an incredulous look on his face. He had just left a postgame press conference, gotten a slap on the back from Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity, then walked into a hallway and looked around. He threw both hands up in the air in exasperation.

In reality, Fox didn’t know the way to his team’s locker room. But given events of the evening, and this season, Georgia’s head coach could also have been saying: Where was this all season?

Georgia had just played perhaps its best game of the season, pummeling Vanderbilt 78-62, keeping the Bulldogs’ season alive at least one more day. But if Fox’s team had been able to play like this in three or four more games then it would be on the way to an NCAA tournament bid and the coach’s job wouldn’t be in jeopardy.

That’s what has been so confounding about this Georgia team: It has the SEC player of the year, senior Yante Maten, and on some nights it has looked like a genuine SEC contender: A double-digit win over Tennessee, both wins over Florida, and this rout of hapless Vanderbilt.

But those wins have been spaced around games, or even halves of games, where Maten received little help and the Bulldogs lost. The regular-season game against Vanderbilt, for example. How do you look so bad in one game and so good against the same team exactly a month later?

“The game of basketball gets a lot easier when everyone makes shots,” Maten said on Wednesday night, when he had a superb game (25 points) but so did plenty of teammates. “Because (the opponent) isn’t sure who to lock in on. The freshmen did a really great job coming in playing their role in the offense. And our defense as well. Everyone was locked in, so that helped me out tremendously.”

There is talent on this team. It just can’t be depended on to gel together every game, which is why there’s no reason to expect that Wednesday night’s performance will translate to Thursday afternoon’s stiffer test against Missouri.

Rayshaun Hammonds was a top 50 prospect when he signed with Georgia, but as a freshman he’s been wildly inconsistent, disappearing at times. He had one of his appearances on Wednesday, notching 10 points and eight rebounds and looking confident around the hoop.

Nicolas Claxton, another freshman forward, is an intriguing blend of size (6-foot-11) and athleticism. He showed it several times Wednesday, grabbing rebounds and dunking the ball, and swatting away shots.

Teshaun Hightower, the freshman point guard, has at times looked like the answer to the team’s point guard problems, such as his six-assist, 13-point performance against Vanderbilt. At other times he’s looked like a freshman, such as when he fumbled the ball in the critical, bungled final possession against Texas A&M last week.

The rap on Fox has been a reluctance to play freshmen, but this year Hammonds, Claxton and Hightower have each started some games, and often played significant minutes. To hear their coach tell it, they’ve been part of the problem, but when the team plays as well as it did Wednesday they’re a big part of the solution.

“They’re very talented young players, and we’ve played them a lot throughout the year, and they’ve made some real costly errors throughout the season, which has allowed them to grow because of the way they’ve responded to it,” Fox said. “So I think because they’ve responded to mistakes, and developed confidence from plays they’ve completed, they’re playing a little bit more maturely than they did even two weeks ago, but certainly a month ago.”

At one point Wednesday night, one could look at the court and see Georgia’s front line – Maten, Hammonds and junior Derek Ogbeide, with Claxton coming off the bench – and realize: This really could have been a good team. That is a formidable front line, one that just needed consistent outside scoring.

It didn’t need it against Vanderbilt. It probably will against Missouri. But can you depend on it?

Will junior point guard Turtle Jackson play well? Will sophomore shooting guard Tyree Crump hit shots and not commit turnovers? How effective can senior guard Juwan Parker be from the outside?

These are all unknowns. And there are nights you can’t even depend on the non-Maten post players either. Which is why Fox wasn’t smiling much after Wednesday’s game. It was just one game.

Yes, a very good one. But there could have been more of them.

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