Rested Georgia heads for another key test

semerson@macon.comFebruary 28, 2014 

ATHENS -- Georgia guard Kenny Gaines only caught the tail end of Thursday night’s Arkansas win at Kentucky. It might be that it helped Georgia, off since Tuesday, to next play a team coming off an emotional win that went overtime, then have to play again less than 48 hours later.

But Gaines didn’t sound convinced.

“Possibly, they might be a little more tired; we might be more fresh. But every night, any team is gonna go harder than the other team,” Gaines said Friday, as Georgia prepared to leave for Fayetteville, Ark. “So we’ve just gotta go up there and play harder than them, really.”

Then he added the most salient point, “And it’s gonna be at Arkansas.”

This has been a remarkable run in SEC play for Georgia (16-11, 10-5 SEC), but the Bulldogs have done it mostly by defending their home court. They are 3-4 in road SEC games, including double-digit losses at Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Arkansas (19-9, 8-7) is strong at home and is just as hot as Georgia. Each team has won six of its past seven games.

“I understand they have a Thursday-Saturday turnaround, but we can’t depend on that to give us any advantage,” Georgia forward Marcus Thornton said. “It’s gonna be about what we do, how we’re doing, how composed we are, how determined we are to execute the game plan Coach gives us.”

This game looms critical for the Bulldogs, although the reward is greater than the risk:

• A victory would give Georgia a quality road win and greatly enhance what right now are low chances for the NCAA tournament. It would also all but seal third place in the SEC.

• A loss would solidify the notion that Georgia must win the SEC tournament in order to get into the NCAA tournament. It would also leave the Bulldogs with a lot of work to do to finish third in the SEC.

The mantra around the team continues to be ignore, at least publicly, any buzz about a postseason berth. Head coach Mark Fox and players haven’t talked about targeting the double-bye, much less the long-shot NCAA bid.

“I think with us it’s about taking it step by step,” Thornton said. “That’s all you can do if you have a big-picture goal; then the best way to get to it is to handle it step by step.”

Georgia is now ranked 78th in the RPI, continuing a steady climb at least into the periphery of NCAA tournament at-large discussion. The team with the lowest RPI rank (under the current formula) to ever get an at-large bid was Southern California, which was 67th in 2011.

Fox continues to speak up for the SEC -- often in colorful terms -- but has so far refrained from lobbying specifically for his own team.

“Oh, there’ll be a time for that, if we can win a couple of more games,” Fox said. “But this league’s better than people think. One of my managers said there’s a team that’s lost seven games in a row and someone has them in the tournament. And that’s insane. If we lost seven games in a row in this league, any team, they’d make them Division II.”

It wasn’t exactly clear which team Fox was talking about. But it fit his larger point.

With one more victory, Georgia will clinch at least a share of third place in the final SEC standings. But the tournament seedings, and the coveted double-bye, are another matter.

Arkansas and Tennessee have easier schedules, and both could realistically win their final three games. That would leave them 11-7, and each would have the tiebreaker on Georgia: Tennessee via head-to-head, and Arkansas via the second tiebreaker, record against the top teams in the conference.

So Georgia might need to beat Arkansas or LSU on the road, in addition to beating Mississippi State at home, in order to ensure a double-bye.

It will be a difficult task in Fayetteville.

“We understand that if we keep winning, there may be positive things that come about,” Thornton said. “But that doesn’t matter if we can’t win the next game.”

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