ATHENS – We might have seen the eventual SEC champion here Saturday, and that team mightn’t be the one you’d think. The Georgia Bulldogs looked snooty Kentucky in the eye and weren’t overly impressed by what they saw. The Bulldogs, see, have reason to believe they’re the class of this league, and this result did nothing to dissuade them.
Said Trey Thompkins, surely the SEC’s best player: “We expect to play with teams like Kentucky and Tennessee and Florida. … We feel like we can play with anybody.”
Georgia beat Kentucky 77-70, and it was no home-court fluke. Georgia was the better side for 35 of the 40 minutes. It built an early lead, saw it disappear not long after halftime and then rebuilt it. It was just as Mark Fox, the canny Georgia coach, said it would be.
Here’s what Fox said he told his Bulldogs, who led by 11 at halftime: “[That] we were mature enough to play 40 minutes, mature enough to withstand the run we knew they were going to make. We’re an older team now, and we should be able to finish this type of game.”
And there’s the key reason — one of two key reasons, actually — that Georgia has a chance to serious damage: The Bulldogs are seasoned in a way most big-time college teams aren’t. They start a senior and four juniors. Most of these guys suffered through the final days of Dennis Felton and have found in Fox the man who could maximize their potential.
It’s also clear, in the cold light of hindsight, that Felton’s final recruiting class was his best: Thompkins was in it, and so were Travis Leslie and Dustin Ware. Thing was, Felton’s grind-it-out style would never have showcased their talents. Georgia needed a tactician for that, and Damon Evans, then Georgia’s athletic director, found a Fox for his Hounds.
This correspondent trashed the Fox hire, and this correspondent was as wrong as he has ever been on anything. (Which is saying something.) Fox can sketch X’s and O’s with anybody, and Saturday he outdrew the head Wildcat. John Calipari’s methodology is to recruit one-and-dones and let them freelance off his dribble-drive offense. Fox runs Tex Winter’s old triangle — most know it as Phil Jackson’s triangle — and in this team he has the requisite three sides.
Georgia got the ball where it wanted more often Saturday and found better shots. (It made 44.9 percent of its shots to Kentucky’s 38 percent.) It fed Thompkins early — he had 14 points in 17 first-half minutes — and allowed its guards to shoot when Calipari switched to a zone to keep Thompkins from setting some sort of record. But come the game’s biggest possession, Georgia up five inside the final three minutes, guess where the ball went?
Thompkins on the right baseline. Thompkins turning for a half-hook. Thompkins making it a seven-point game.
Fox: “It was a called play and a big basket. We were going to him, and he made a player-of-the-year-type play.”
Some coaches outsmart themselves by eschewing their main man for fear of a defense overload. Fox sees it more simply: When you’ve got the best player on the floor, you get him the ball.
Thompkins: “He drew up the play. He’s a mastermind.”
Does the play have a name? Said Thompkins, smiling: “It does, but I can’t tell you.”
Whenever Kentucky comes to town, there’s going to be top-shelf talent on display. What was revelatory Saturday was that Georgia had just as many good players as the big-ticket Big Blue. Asked if this was an upset, Leslie said: “Not really. I knew had the tools to compete.”
Asked what he thought after he had watched tape of Kentucky: “I didn’t think we’d be totally outclassed.”
This team won’t be outclassed by anyone it sees. It has the players, it has the blend, and it darn sure has a coach. Georgia could/should be in the SEC East chase until the last dog dies, and don’t be surprised if the last dog standing is a Bulldog.
By Mark Bradley