NASHVILLE – They did not come into the week with some delusion that this SEC tournament was about fattening up their RPI or maybe gaining a swing vote on the selection committee. Because the only way Georgia was making it into the NCAA tournament was by shocking its conference brethren again.
That didn’t happen this week. But that’s OK. Two years ago, when the Bulldogs won the SEC tournament, it sent out inaccurate signals of the program’s direction. We learned that when they lost seven straight the following year, and Dennis Felton was drop-kicked with two months left in the season.
Georgia didn’t need to go on another miracle run in this week’s SEC tournament to convince us of direction. We already have a sense where things are headed. The only thing that was affirmed Friday night was that there’s still a ways to go. After giving Vanderbilt fits in two games this season, the Dogs were drilled by the Commodores 78-66 in the SEC quarterfinals.
Thursday’s win over Arkansas: a step forward.
Friday’s loss: not necessarily a step back.
Mark Fox: not getting fired. Direction is established.
When asked if the big picture negated the usual empty feeling associated with a season-ending loss, Fox said: “I’m upset we lost. We didn’t plan on losing. We planned to be here [Saturday] afternoon. [But] I am proud of this team because when I came here, everybody kept telling me how terrible we were.
“We still at times maybe weren’t a great basketball team. But we beat some people who maybe we were not supposed to beat, we’ve given our program some momentum and we earned some respect back. In rebuilding, those were some steps we had to take. So I don’t feel empty. But I am angry that we lost.”
That’s the reaction you want: A sense of satisfaction about progress, even while not accepting defeat.
“We never short-changed ourselves [because of] the fact we were inexperienced with coach’s system or we were a young team,” said Trey Thompkins. “We came out to fight just like all of our opponents. We expected to win just like any team would.”
But this game was a reality hit. Travis Leslie’s 34 points notwithstanding, there was a significant gap between Georgia and Vanderbilt. The Commodores held an eight-point lead despite cold shooting in the first half. But they blew it open in the second, going on a 23-9 run that increased a tw0-point lead (40-38) to 16 (63-47). Thompkins, the star of game one and the focus of Vanderbilt’s defense, started the night 0 for 6 and finished with 13 points. It was clearly early this would not be repeat of the title run of 2008.
By the time they had beaten Arkansas, Georgia players already had grown weary of stories about the 2008 conference tournament team. Can’t really blame them. Only a few players on this roster even played that year in Athens.
“As a team we really never thought about  because we’re not that team,” Thompkins had said following the win over Arkansas. “That’s just the truth. They were a different group of guys. We want people to talk about us the way they talked about that team.”
They’re talking about these Bulldogs now. The 2008 team overcame a last-place finish (4-12), a tornado, a change of venue, an embattled coach (Felton) and the residual scars of the Jim Harrick era to win the tournament. While that figures to be a reference point for several years, it’s clear the Dogs of the Mark Fox era are gaining their own identity.
In his first season, Fox has gained a reputation among other SEC coaches of fielding a tough and smart team. After the win over Arkansas, Razorbacks coach John Pelphrey said, “[They’re] obviously well-coached, good players.”
Nothing much was expected this season. But the Dogs upset three-ranked teams.
Nothing much was expected this week. But then came the win over Arkansas (even if that wasn’t a major upset).
This is his how reputations are built. This is how identities are formed.
“I told them tonight I respected their efforts,” Fox said. Appropriate words.