ATHENS -- Players-only meetings tend to get overblown at first and then quickly forgotten, especially when the results don’t follow. And indeed, not many around the Georgia men’s basketball team were trumpeting their closed-door affair in Charleston last month.
But when one Georgia player this week was asked to pinpoint his team’s recent turnaround, he traced it to that meeting, when the team was 1-4, seemingly already destined for a lost season.
“We just kind of keyed in on having a winning season,” Brandon Morris said. “It was early, and we just wanted to look in the mirror and point out things we could do. No coaches allowed, no managers. Just 15 of us in there.”
It worked. It just didn’t happen right away.
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The Bulldogs are one of the early surprises of SEC play, and they can improve to 4-1 in the conference with a home win Wednesday over South Carolina. The team that left the Charleston Classic with a dismal outlook has gone on to win eight of 10, with the two losses on the road to probable NCAA tournament teams.
“They have found their identity,” South Carolina head coach Frank Martin said Tuesday. “Everyone thinks that you find your identity in the offseason. You don’t find your team identity every year until you’re right in the middle of the whole thing. And they obviously have found who they are, and those kids are growing into their jobs, their roles, and they’re doing a heck of a job right now.”
Improved rebounding and defense are the hallmark of Georgia’s turnaround, but it’s not limited to that. Here are more specific reasons the Bulldogs have turned it around:
Marcus Thornton’s emergence: It’s hard to overstate the importance that Thornton, a junior whose career was marred by injuries, has had the past four games.
The numbers tell it all. Thornton has nearly doubled his rebounding average in SEC play (from 4.4 rebounds per game in nonconference play to 8.5 in the SEC), and has also increased his scoring (from 6.6 to 9.0) and minutes played (21.5 to 29.8). And of his 20 blocks this season, half have come in the past four games.
“It’s just getting more comfortable,” Thornton said. “Getting a chance to play. Sometimes you play a certain amount of nonconference games, it’s tough to get in rhythm. So playing in these conference games, I’ve just been able to find somewhat of a stride. I still have a long way to go, but I’m getting more comfortable in my role.”
Shortening and stabilizing the rotation: The first 12 games saw Fox trying to figure out what he had, using seven different starting lineups and going deep in his bench.
But the past four games have seen the same starting lineup. And the rotation has been shortened and the starters are seeing more minutes.
Georgia didn’t have a single player average 30 minutes during nonconference play. Since SEC play began, guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines are both averaging more than 34 minutes.
“We have guys who have been playing more consistently, so we’ve been able to kind of keep that group together,” Fox said, before going on to praise the way reserves like J.J. Frazier, Juwan Parker and Tim Dixon have played in spurts.
Gaines finding his stroke: When Kentavious Caldwell-Pope turned pro last year, it left Georgia without a consistent outside shooter. Gaines was the most likely person to drain 3-pointers, but early in the season he was hesitant to shoot, he admitted this week.
Now the hesitation is gone, and he’s hitting big shots. His 3-pointer on the first possession of overtime gave Georgia the lead for good last Saturday against Arkansas.
Mann, the team’s point guard and leading scorer, tends to be more consistent. But when Gaines is on, the Bulldogs are a much better team: Gaines is the leading scorer in Georgia’s nine wins, averaging 12.2 points per game. He is averaging just 6.7 points in Georgia’s seven losses.
“I feel like my role has changed, even from earlier in the season. I feel more comfortable,” Gaines said. “I don’t necessarily say I’m gonna take 12-15 shots. Whenever I have a chance to take a shot, as long as it’s a good shot, I’m gonna take it.”
A few more stats have shown marked improvement in SEC play:
Getting to the line more, averaging 30.25 free throws per game, after 25.2 per nonconference game.
Fewer turnovers, only 4.9 per conference game after 12.6 per nonconference game.
“I see a team that’s playing consistent in its way,” Martin said. “They’re not deviating, as you watch them on film, from what’s helping them.”