ATHENS – The coach of a team that’s struggling to just stay out of last place is always looking for positives to disseminate, anything to keep players motivated and fans clinging to hopes of a miracle 180.
Mark Fox appears to be well-practiced in this art.
“We’ve played 12 league games and we’ve made more baskets than our opponent,” the Georgia coach accurately pointed out Sunday. “We’ve had fewer turnovers in league play. We have more offensive rebounds. We’re getting beaten at the foul line — we’re not physical enough to draw free throw attempts but we’re close. If we make free throws and finish better around the basket, this game comes down to the wire.”
So he’s saying they’ve got a chance . . .
Actually, maybe they do. After the tornado-dented SEC tournament of 2008, can anybody really state with certainty that Georgia has zero chance to pull off a miracle string of upsets in a few weeks?
Ninety-eight percent certainty, maybe. Georgia’s latest effort Sunday was like so many others this season. The Dogs played hard but couldn’t make shots because, simply, they’re not very good.
They led Vanderbilt, a likely NCAA tournament team, 40-35 with 13:38 left at Stegeman Coliseum, then were outscored 15-0 in a span of 5:33, during which they were 0 for 8 from the floor and committed two turnovers. So opened the gates to a 61-52 loss, the Bulldogs’ ninth conference defeat in 12 games.
They’re a hiccup ahead of last-place South Carolina (2-10), the team it lost to last Wednesday.
Remarkably, Fox’s statistical observations were correct. Georgia made more field goals (20-17) than Vanderbilt. They committed fewer turnovers (20-12). They finished with more offensive rebounds (13-7).
That’s the great thing about statistics. If you spin them just right, you can make yourself look like a No. 1 seed, or a Nobel candidate. In comparing the state of the Georgia and Vanderbilt programs right now, it would be just as accurate to point out that Athens is slightly closer to being beach-front property than Nashville.
Fox did great things in his first two seasons at Georgia. He engineered upsets of three ranked teams in his first year and an NCAA tournament run in his second. But he just doesn’t have much to work with. The numbers that actually indicate where his team is at: Georgia was 1 for 17 in three-point attempts in the second half and 3 for 23 in the game. Vanderbilt was 10 for 22. That’s a 21-point difference.
The Dogs are the worst-shooting (.392) and lowest-scoring (61.3) team in the conference. After 26 games, it’s more than a trend.
Georgia is capable of the occasional upset (it beat then-ranked Mississippi State). But it’s equally capable of losing to last-place South Carolina (which happened four days later).
“We’ve been playing better, especially over the past month. We just have to keep growing,” guard Dustin Ware said.
“I’m pretty sure we can take something positive from every game,” said Gerald Robinson.
These are the soundbites from a team just waiting for the skies to open up again.
Four years ago, the Dogs went through the regular season and won four SEC games. Then they went through the conference tournament and won four games in three days, winning the Golden Ticket to the NCAA tournament. Those Dogs actually had more stacked against them. In 2008, Georgia was dealing with a program that still hadn’t put the pieces back together following NCAA probation. There were rumors that coach Dennis Felton was about to lose his job. (Indeed, the tournament run likely saved it.)
There’s no such baggage this time. But the reality is that miracles don’t happen very often. That’s why they’re called miracles. And the numbers that matter most aren’t real comforting.
By Jeff Schultz