Charlotte — Sometimes I feel I’m the lone ranger. I watch Georgia and I see good players, a good coach and a good team. Others wonder why this team made the NCAA tournament field. So I asked Lorenzo Romar about the Bulldogs, and now I don’t feel so all alone.
Said Romar, whose Washington Huskies will play Georgia on Friday: “I definitely don’t see a team that shouldn’t be here. They’re physical. In the paint they’re more than capable of playing well and competing against any team. They’re well-coached. They have a system that you can see they’re disciplined in. They have great quickness, and they really do a good job defending.”
Then, regarding Mark Fox: “You can see he has them playing the right right way. I’m really impressed with how he goes about handling his business.”
Then, regarding Trey Thompkins, the Georgia forward Romar coached this summer as part the USA Select team: “He was good … I loved his attitude, his mobility, his versatility. Just a nice stroke. Has great hands.”
Then, regarding the other Bulldogs: “Travis Leslie is a phenomenal athlete … He can run like a gazelle. And their guard play is good as well. They have good quickness on the perimeter. They have a real good blend.”
About here, I nearly jumped up and said, “Exactly!” I managed to restrain myself, but it’s always nice to hear a learned basketball man say pretty much what you’ve thought for four months: That these Bulldogs have it within them to be a big-time basketball team.
I admit they haven’t always behaved that way. That’s how they came to lose 11 games and nearly play themselves out of the Big Dance. But there’s not much Georgia can’t do: They can shoot it and they can score down low and they can defend and they’re seasoned. (They start four juniors and a senior.) That said …
I expected more. I expected Georgia to win more close games along the SEC trail than it has. I didn’t expect the Bulldogs to blow a 14-point lead inside the final seven minutes against Alabama last week. I can understand why outsiders don’t expect much from this team in this tournament — at 5 1/2 points, Washington is the biggest favorite by far among the No. 7 seeds — but I also keep thinking there’s more to this team than we’ve seen.
Either we’ll see it Friday or we’ll spend the summer wondering why we didn’t. Washington can be beaten. (The Huskies have lost 10 games and finished third in the not-very-hot Pac-10.) This stands to be one of those fast-versus-slow deals, as they say in NASCAR: Washington runs and presses and averages 83.5 points; Georgia prefers to settle into its half-court triangle and averages 69.8.
Whichever team can make the game move at its speed figures to win, and in the NCAA tournament, with its heightened tension and longer timeouts, it’s easier for a deliberate team to slow a faster opponent than for the quicker side to mash on the gas. Although Romar did say: “As the season has evolved, we’ve learned from our mistakes. We have better patience.”
As for Georgia, Fox said: “We’ve always tried to play as fast as we can play well, and we’ll have to try to find that balance.”
This one seems simple: Either the 5-foot-9 Isaiah Thomas flits through Georgia’s defense and the Huskies score big, or the Bulldogs hunker down and clog the lane and guard the perimeter — doing both isn’t easy — and the underdog carries the day.
I’ve waited all year to see Georgia win big games, and it has won a couple. It’s probably wrong to expect this team to win a couple more this weekend in the crucible of the NCAA tournament, but that’s why I’m the lone ranger. After all their near-misses, I still expect the Bulldogs to get it right. I expect them to frustrate the Huskies. I expect the team that wasn’t sure it would make the field to be playing Sunday.
By Mark Bradley