The Georgia Bulldogs have been the surprise of Southeastern Conference basketball this season - twice.
Picked to finish 11th in the league following the early departure of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the NBA, the Bulldogs bolted to an unexpected 4-1 conference start before losing three straight games. They regrouped to win four in a row and are now 8-4 and alone in third behind Florida and Kentucky entering tonight's game at Tennessee on ESPNU.
"I don't think that we're surprised that we've had some success," Georgia fifth-year coach Mark Fox said Monday, "and I probably wasn't surprised we had some struggles early, just because we had such a major adjustment in learning to play without Kentavious. We've certainly matured and adjusted and learned how this group can play, and I think we always believed in our team."
Caldwell-Pope was the eighth overall pick of the 2013 NBA draft, and his absence was noted when Georgia labored through the nonconference portion of its schedule with a 6-6 record. The Bulldogs lost to Temple and were thumped by Davidson and Georgia Tech, and all three of those teams entered this week ranked 150th or worse in the Ratings Percentage Index.
The Bulldogs had the SEC's only RPI worse than 200th at the start of conference play but began this week ranked 105th. They still have work to do to get into NCAA tournament conversation and have been brutal to the league's NCAA "bubble" members, having swept Missouri, LSU and Ole Miss and now trying to top the Volunteers.
Georgia has made just two NCAA tournament trips in the last 12 years, including one appearance under Fox in 2011.
"Our focus has always been on the next game," Fox said. "If you do that, the rest of it seems to take care of itself."
The Bulldogs are impressing in 2014 with a roster better suited for 2015. Sophomore guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines are the team's leading scorers, combining for 26 points a game, while the leading rebounder is junior forward Marcus Thornton.
Forward Donte' Williams, who is second on the team in rebounds, is the lone senior.
"Georgia is a well-put-together team," said Mississippi State coach Rick Ray, whose Bulldogs were routed 75-55 at home by Georgia last Wednesday. "Coach Fox has those guys understanding what their roles are on the team and how they can help the team, and everybody has bought into that. They don't take unnecessary 3s, and another thing is they are so big and long.
"Mann at the point guard spot is 6-5, so he's bigger than all the point guards he plays against, and I think that's a big reason why he gets to the free-throw line so much. They have so much size and length along the front line that they're able to cover up some of their defensive mistakes with their ability to affect your shot in the end."
Fox said the Bulldogs went "off the tracks" when Gaines injured his hip, resulting in an absence that overlapped Georgia's three-game skid.
After tonight, the Bulldogs will have played every other SEC team. Their closing five contests will be against teams they already have defeated: South Carolina, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi State and LSU.
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