ATHENS -- Mark Fox was impatient. The head coach of the Georgia men’s basketball team was ready to start his pre-Tennessee media session, but sophomore guard Kenny Gaines was holding him up, still talking to reporters.
“Kenny, get on outta here!” Fox said, gesturing out the door. “You’re gonna get suspended.”
Fox was kidding. Probably. Either way, the atmosphere is a lighter around the program these days, with a four-game winning streak putting Georgia alone in third place in the SEC and giving it suddenly realistic postseason hopes.
Yes, that almost certainly only means the NIT. Georgia, (14-10 overall, 8-4 SEC) had an RPI rank of 88 on Monday, a number that would have to tick up about 30 spots to even put the Bulldogs in the discussion for the NCAA tournament.
But the fact the NIT is even on the table is remarkable, considering where it was such a short time ago. The Bulldogs took a pounding in nonconference play, not beating a single team that’s currently ranked in the top 150 of the RPI. And even after a quick start to conference play, they found themselves 4-4.
Now the Bulldogs enter Tennessee on Tuesday night with a chance to equal their victory total from last year.
Losing star Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the NBA draft last year resulted in many writing off Georgia this season. Instead, the Bulldogs are on course to be better.
“We’re a better team than we were last year, yes. But that’s not because we lost Kentavious,” Fox said Monday. “We’d have been terrific if he stayed. But we’re better because we have Marcus (Thornton, who took a medical redshirt last year) back, because Nemi (Djurisic) has improved, Kenny Gaines has improved, Charles (Mann) has improved, Brandon Morris has improved. And that’s why we’re better.”
Here are several other factors that have turned Georgia’s season:
Nobody has attempted more free throws than Georgia in SEC play this season, and it’s not close. Georgia has gone to the line 385 times, 60 more than Missouri.
But the Bulldogs are only eighth in free throw percentage. Missouri is first. Still, getting there so much has masked many of the team’s other deficiencies, including 3-point shooting. Georgia is 13th in the SEC in made 3-pointers.
Mann, the sophomore point guard, has made more free throws than anybody else in conference play with 85. At 6-foot-4, Mann is usually taller than his defender and has taken advantage by driving to the basket to draw fouls.
“I love playing aggressive. I love contact. Getting to the free throw line, as y’all can see, is my best friend,” Mann said. “Of course, with the new rules they were gonna call it stricter. So I wanted to impose that on the game a little bit more than I did last year. I’m doing a pretty good job this year.”
In conference play, Georgia leads the SEC in rebounds (40.2 per game), and is second in rebounding margin (an average of 7.9 more than opponents per game.)
Caldwell-Pope was Georgia’s leading rebounder last season despite being a 6-foot-4 shooting guard. The Bulldogs sorely missed him in at the outset of this season, but something clicked with Thornton and Williams once SEC play began.
“I think it’s often overlooked, that Donte and Marcus’ success on the defensive end, they go unnoticed,” Fox said, pointing to things that don’t register in the box score, such as switching to help on defense. “I think that their play inside has a strong correlation to any success we have.”
The sophomore has looked like Caldwell-Pope in some games, most recently the second half of Saturday’s win over Mississippi. Gaines can be inconsistent, but when his 3-pointer is going down, he gives the Bulldogs a different dimension.
Gaines missed two of Georgia’s four conference losses with a thigh bruise. He probably wouldn’t have made a difference in the loss at Kentucky, but he could have helped turn the home game against Vanderbilt. Gaines’ first game back was at Auburn, another Georgia loss.
Gaines didn’t play much last year because he was Caldwell-Pope’s top backup.
“He has the potential to be just as good as him,” Mann said. “Kenny’s a great player, and he’s doing a great job at filling KCP’s spot.”