Surprising Georgia still has work to do before SEC tournament

Surprising Georgia still has work to do before SEC tournament

March 11th, 2014 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Georgia's Brandon Morris tries to get around LSU's Jarell Martin during an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, March 8, 2014, at LSU in Baton Rouge.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Mark Fox's first Nevada team won 25 games and upset Texas in the opening round of the 2005 NCAA basketball tournament.

The 2005 Wolf Pack always have been his personal favorites as a result, but now they have company. Fox's fifth Georgia team, which was picked 11th in the Southeastern Conference preseason poll, finished 12-6 in league play and tied for second with Kentucky, which began the season ranked No. 1 nationally.

"This team, as I sit here and compare it to that first team, has been just as much fun to coach," Fox said Monday on the SEC teleconference. "These guys have been a real joy, and I look forward to seeing them every day. They enjoy each other, and throughout the season, whether they've been successes or failures, they've tried to use the experience to grow as people and as a team.

"It's been a process that we've all enjoyed."

Georgia is seeded third at this week's SEC tournament in Atlanta, which begins Wednesday night with 12th-seeded Auburn against 13th-seeded South Carolina. The Bulldogs (18-12) do not play until late Friday night, when they face sixth-seeded Mississippi or the winner of Wednesday's late contest between 11th-seeded Vanderbilt and 14th-seeded Mississippi State.

The Bulldogs closed their SEC regular-season schedule Saturday with a road upset of LSU, having opened it Jan. 8 with a road upset of Missouri.

"Mark doesn't get the credit he deserves," South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. "We're in a business where everyone wants that instant gratification, but Mark has built a program there. He has a system in place, and he has young kids who are becoming grown-ups as we watch them.

"I think he's the essence of the strength of our league and how good our league is really getting."

In most seasons, finishing 12-6 would put an SEC team safely into the NCAA tournament, but this season has been anything but normal for the Bulldogs. They went just 6-6 in nonconference play and entered January ranked last among league teams in the Ratings Percentage Index.

The Bulldogs did not get to host the three other teams receiving double byes this week at the Georgia Dome -- Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee -- which could have given them an opportunity at a marquee league win. Georgia is 0-6 against top-50 RPI teams.

"I don't want to say that it's a tallest-midget-in-the-circus type of thing," ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi said recently on a teleconference, "but if I said, 'Let's spend a lot of time talking about their best wins,' it would be a fairly short conversation."

Georgia's RPI as of Monday afternoon was 73rd, leaving it well behind other SEC bubble teams such as Tennessee (44th), Missouri (52nd) and Arkansas (62nd).

A team already cherished by Fox could find further favor by winning three games this weekend and clinching the automatic bid to the NCAA's 68-team field. Winning the SEC tournament is likely the only way the Bulldogs could get a March Madness invitation, but they've been pretty good the past couple of months at silencing the doubters.

"They struggled early, but it's a sign of a coach who keeps his team together and keeps them moving in the right direction," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "Right now they believe as much as anybody in our league that they have a chance to win this thing."

Said Fox: "I don't know if we'll have to win it, but it sure takes the stress out of it if you do. I think we would have to advance to have a legitimate at-large chance, and if you advance, you might as well win it."

A difficult day

South Carolina's Martin was suspended for Saturday's win at Mississippi State after cameras caught him shouting profanities at one of his players during last Tuesday night's loss to Florida. Martin said he could not bear to watch the game in Starkville.

"I went to my daughter's cheerleading competition, which gave me sanity, and it gave me peace," Martin said. "To sit there and watch my daughter compete kept my emotions in her and not in the situation of not being able to be with my team."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.