Charlotte — “Losing in the tournament,” Mark Fox said, his voice a rasp as Friday night became Saturday morning, “there should be no shame in that.” There shouldn’t, and there isn’t. You could even describe the presence of Georgia in the NCAA tournament as a breakthrough. And yet …
The season that ended here didn’t feel quite that emphatic. Georgia won 21 games and made the Big Dance, yes. It also lost 12 games and was gone from the NCAA after 40 minutes that could stand as the season in miniature.
The Bulldogs got what they wanted against Washington — the game, the pace, the score. They just couldn’t win it. “Yes,” said Fox, the Georgia coach, “that was frustrating.”
Two years ago it was possible to wonder if the Bulldogs would ever again grace the only tournament that matters. That they made it in their second try under Fox says much about this coach, and in a different era we would look on Georgia and foresee, to borrow from the late Al McGuire, only seashells and balloons. But we live in a colder time, where this season’s team can bear little resemblance to next’s.
There’s a chance we might have watched one of the more talented Bulldog assemblages come and go without registering even one NCAA tournament win. Not since the early ’80s, when Dominique Wilkins and Vern Fleming worked in tandem, has Georgia had a duo as gifted as Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, but what are the chances we’ll see either or both of these juniors play another collegiate minute?
Said Fox: “They could come back and we could have a great team. They could leave and we could have a young team. One could stay and one could go.”
Fox has signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a shooting guard from Greenville High who should become Georgia’s first McDonald’s All-American recruit since Carlos Strong in 1992. (Louis Williams was a McDonald’s All-American but didn’t enroll; Damien Wilkins was, but arrived as a transfer.) Put Caldwell-Pope alongside Thompkins and Leslie and you’d have a Top 10 team. But the probability is that Thompkins will leave, and with him would go any hope of such a lofty ranking.
Georgia left so many winnable games on the table this season they needed an extra leaf to accommodate them all. Friday’s was just the last of a series. The Bulldogs led by seven in the first half, saw Washington tie it at the break, fell behind by 10 with 12 1/2 minutes left and still trailed by eight with 36 seconds remaining. But they cut it to two and had a chance to tie on Leslie’s fling off a deflection at the buzzer.
Afterward Thompkins didn’t care to ponder missed opportunities. “We gave it every shot we had,” he said. And then: “I don’t regret anything. We’re a tough bunch.”
But they weren’t tough or clever enough to turn a good season into something more. Big men Jeremy Price and Chris Barnes were inconsistent. Guards Gerald Robinson Jr. and Dustin Ware were too much alike — neither a true point guard, neither a knockdown shooter. And there was nothing beyond Barnes in the way of depth. Said Fox after Georgia’s full-tilt rally that fell one basket short: “We’re just not deep enough to play that way all the time.”
Georgia scored 65 points against Washington; Thompkins and Leslie accounted for 38 of those. And now their partnership could end after three seasons, and if it does, Fox will have a hard time finding a starting five, let alone filling out his bench.
And that’s why college basketball has become such an ephemeral thing: You must win big when the opportunity arises, for next season holds no guarantee. (Indeed, who’s to say Caldwell-Pope mightn’t be a one-and-done?)
There was no dishonor in anything Georgia did this season: Its losses were all close, all to worthy opponents. But it would be wrong to suggest there wasn’t disappointment. The Bulldogs gave themselves a chance against Washington, same as they’d given themselves a chance against everybody. Chances, alas, aren’t the same as victories.
By Mark Bradley