Surging Bulldogs still have to overcome early struggles

semerson@macon.comMarch 13, 2013 

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope stood in the locker room Wednesday and reflected on what his Georgia basketball team has been able to pull off the past two months.

“We have improved much faster than I thought we would,” he said. “We’ve overcome a lot of things. Just getting better every day.”

But time is about to run out on the Bulldogs, unless they can make another SEC tournament miracle run.

Georgia arrived in Nashville as a team haunted by the first half of its season. A stunning and stinging run of losses doomed it to its current fate -- needing to win the SEC tournament, starting with Thursday’s game against LSU, to make it to the NCAA tournament.

But the Bulldogs also can plausibly argue that they’re playing like one of the best teams in the conference. They enter having won eight of their past 13, including three wins over teams with NCAA tournament-worthy résumés.

Caldwell-Pope was named the SEC player of the year Tuesday, the first Georgia player to win the award since Dominque Wilkins. The rest of the team also has improved, with point guard Charles Mann making the SEC all-freshman team. That’s a pretty good formula for an NCAA tournament team.

But a 15-16 overall record and an RPI rank still in the hundreds don’t help. That’s why it appears even the NIT is off the table.

“It’s a little bit frustrating,” sophomore Nemanja Djurisic said. “I mean, we put ourselves in that position so we can’t look back right now, we can’t say, ‘Oh my God, if we hadn’t lost this one; if we hadn’t lost this one.’ That’s not how we work. That’s not what we did in the middle of the season. We didn’t look back; we just wanted to focus on the next game, and that’s why we found the success that we did.”

Even as they looked toward what they hope is a long weekend in Nashville, the Bulldogs reflected on how they arrived at this point.

When Georgia started the season 2-7 -- losing at home to Iona, Southern Miss and Youngstown State -- things seemed bleak. It didn’t seem much better when the team started 1-4 in SEC play, including a home loss to Mississippi State, one of the worst teams in the conference.

“We went into the season knowing that we were going to have freshmen and sophomores play major roles,” head coach Mark Fox said, adding that two of those seven losses came in overtime. “At 1-4 there was no panic because we played (Florida) twice and played at Missouri and had the toughest part of our schedule (out of the way). So I think our team trusts in our coaching staff. We’ve got really good young people who we believed would stay the course and really all we’ve done is that.”

The team did turn it around, winning five in a row, but there was heartache ahead: Close losses at Mississippi and Arkansas, with the Ole Miss loss being particularly worrisome because of officiating.

That’s why Fox isn’t worried about the team recovering from its most recent loss, Saturday at Alabama when the Crimson Tide hit a halfcourt shot at the buzzer to win.

“There were some games they were angry, and it was straight anger that brought them back,” Fox said. “There were a couple games like that. We’ve had a range of emotions from anger to pride and just, you know, testament to our character to show up and do all that we can do to win.”

Georgia’s first win of the SEC season came against LSU, the same team it will face Thursday. That game seems a long time ago now, as both teams have improved dramatically. The Tigers fell to 0-4 in the SEC with that loss to the Bulldogs; like the Bulldogs, they ended up 9-9.

That’s why Fox told his staff that while they could watch the videotape of that January win over LSU, they shouldn’t depend on it.

If the Bulldogs win Thursday, then a third game with Florida awaits Friday. It’s not a good draw, especially since the Gators’ sweep of the Bulldogs came by a combined 50 points.

But in order for Georgia’s season to continue past this weekend, it would probably have to beat Florida at some point anyway.

“It’s a new start,” Caldwell-Pope said. “Everybody is 0-and-0 and we’ve just gotta go with the mindset that we’re getting better, like we have all season. Just try to come out of there and get a win.”

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