ATHENS -- Marcus Thornton has been with the Georgia basketball program for four years, which means he has seen plenty of tournaments and rarely had a chance to celebrate.
Never mind winning a tournament. Just winning a game in a tournament has been difficult for this program lately.
“Every tournament,” Thornton said Wednesday, shaking his head and smiling ruefully. “I’ve remembered every single tournament; we haven’t really done well. So ... yeah.”
There are reasons to believe Georgia can reverse the trend in this weekend’s SEC tournament. But first the ugly facts.
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Georgia is known for pulling off the biggest Cinderella job in the tournament’s history, winning four games as the final seed in the tornado tournament of 2008. But since then, the Bulldogs have won just three games in the SEC tournament, never advancing past the Friday quarterfinals.
In fact, the team is 6-15 in neutral-site tournament games, including the SEC, the NCAA and early season non-conference events.
The team was one-and-out in last year’s SEC tournament. And it was 0-3 earlier this season in the Charleston Classic.
“I don’t think there’s anything that we do or haven’t done that causes that. No,” said Thornton, a junior who took a medical redshirt last season. “A tournament setting is really hard to play, but you’ve gotta keep your feet in the day, and I think that’s the biggest thing.”
What Georgia has going for it this time around is that it enters the tournament on a hot streak -- unlike previous SEC tournaments.
The Bulldogs have won eight of their past 10, including a convincing road win at LSU. Compare that to three years ago, the last time the tournament was at the Georgia Dome, when Georgia had a team good enough to eventually earn an NCAA tournament bid. But Georgia went 1-1 in the SEC tournament, losing in the quarterfinals in overtime to Alabama. That team entered the tournament coming off a road loss at Alabama and was a middling 6-6 down the stretch.
This year’s team also will have the benefit of good seeding, in fact the best it has enjoyed in years.
Georgia (18-12, 12-6 SEC) will be the third seed, which means a double-bye into Friday’s quarterfinals. The Bulldogs will be the final team in the tournament to take the floor.
Georgia’s opponent will be either sixth-seeded Mississippi, which would have played Thursday, or No. 11 Vanderbilt or No. 14 Mississippi State, which would have played Wednesday and Thursday.
“We’re definitely gonna use it to our advantage,” Georgia sophomore forward Brandon Morris said. “I feel like our team’s gonna be real fresh by the time Friday gets here. And that’s gonna be a big part of our performance.”
That’s what differentiates this tournament from events like the Charleston Classic, when everybody was on the same schedule. And head coach Mark Fox and players are adamant -- with good reason -- that they have a much different team from the one that fell in succession to Davidson, Temple and Nebraska. Those losses left the Bulldogs 1-4 on the season.
“I totally anticipated we’d have trouble out of the gate,” Fox said, citing the adjustment without reigning SEC player of the year Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. “I figured we could struggle early. So I didn’t waver in our belief in this team. That’s something we needed to go through to become a good team. I wasn’t happy with it. But I didn’t waver in my belief in our team.”
Thornton, a veteran of so many tournament troubles, feels the same way.
“I’ve been confident in every team. But at the moment I’m very confident in this team and our capabilities,” Thornton said. “And we’ve continued to get better, so hopefully that’s what will happen over these next few days.”