Georgia has won 20 games, but only a couple of the victories — against Kentucky in January, at Tennessee last month — are worth recalling. Such has been the Bulldogs’ season: For all the good work done, there’s not much we could deem outstanding.
But the season, as of Thursday at 1 p.m., changes. Georgia needs to win at least twice in the SEC tournament to prettify its NCAA tournament profile, and this team is capable of winning twice that many games this week. This team, put simply, is better than it has played.
Said Dustin Ware, the junior guard: “We definitely feel that, as a team, we still have our best basketball in front of us.”
Said Chris Barnes, the backup big man: “We’ve had a lot of close losses.”
Only one of the Bulldogs’ 10 losses has been by more than 10 points, and that was by Florida in double overtime in a game Georgia led by three points with one second remaining in the first OT. It also lost in double overtime to Notre Dame, which finished second in the Big East, after leading by a point inside the final five seconds. And also on a last-second putback by Tennessee’s Brian Williams, who outfought Barnes for a rebound. (Georgia fans insist Williams fouled.)
Has so many near-misses made for a frustrating season? Said Ware: “That’s college basketball.” Then: “In a tournament format, anything can happen.”
Beat Auburn on Thursday and Georgia will play Alabama on Friday, and it’s possible if not probable that the Georgia-Alabama loser will land in the no-account NIT. But the Bulldogs should handle Bama, to which they lost in Tuscaloosa on Saturday, on a neutral floor. And then Georgia could cease fretting about the next tournament and focus on winning this one.
Which has, as we know, happened before. After his team’s practice Wednesday, Barnes was moved to recall his last Dome experience — the night in March 2008 that a tornado hit downtown and ripped the fiberglass roof and rerouted the tournament to Georgia Tech, where the Bulldogs, seeded last in the East, won the event and saved Dennis Felton’s job (for 10 months).
“For me and [fellow senior Jeremy Price], that was the first thing that came to mind,” Barnes said. “We were out in the tunnel, waiting to play [Kentucky]. I remember hearing the roar and the scoreboard swaying. It was a crazy day, a crazy night.”
And then Georgia, which had won four SEC games all season, won two at Tech the next day and another on Sunday. Barnes again: “It was something out of a movie. After we won, I said, ‘Somebody should make a movie out of this.’ ”
The 2008 SEC championship was among the most improbable stories in the history of college hoops. A 2011 SEC championship wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic, but it would be wholly satisfying to a program that has reached the NCAA tournament only once since 2002. Over the past 12 years Georgia has suffered the ineptitude of Ron Jirsa and the investigation of the Jim Harricks Sr. and Jr. and the intransigence of Felton, and happier days are finally here again.
Hired from Nevada in March 2009, Mark Fox has proved to be a fine coach, and these are the most talented Bulldogs since the Jarvis Hayes/Rashad Wright band of 2003. That star-crossed entity stands among the sport’s Great Lost Aggregations. Those Bulldogs would have entered the SEC tournament 19-8 and figured to be no worse than a No. 4 NCAA seed, but the school removed the team from postseason 10 days after Tony Cole made his allegations on ESPN.
This team doesn’t have quite the potential that one did, but it’s close. And if Georgia does reach the NCAA tournament, it could hang around. Last month Fox said, “There’s no question we’ve let a win or two get away.” It’s time for his team to get grabby. It’s time for us to see the Bulldogs’ as-yet-unplayed “best basketball.”
By Mark Bradley