ATLANTA – The season almost certainly isn’t over for the Georgia men’s basketball team, which is likely to receive an NIT bid on Sunday night. But it has now completed a conference season that seems to have revitalized the program.
Georgia tied a school record by winning 13 conference games, counting the regular season and tournament. And it did so with a team that has only one senior.
“This conference season and tournament was a big step in the right direction for this program,” junior forward Marcus Thornton said. “Hopefully it brought something for the fans and the supporters of the program to be happy (about).”
“We just wanted to build the Bulldog Nation back up,” sophomore guard Kenny Gaines said. “We kind of struggled in the past few years, the basketball team, and we kind of wanted to get that support back. We did a pretty good job staying within ourselves. We knew when we lost Kentavious that was gonna be a chunk of scoring. But we never wavered in our (belief) in our talent of our team.
“We struggled in the beginning. But we ended pretty strong.”
Those early struggles – a 6-6 nonconference record, with no quality wins – are why the Bulldogs will be going to the NIT and not the NCAA.
But conference play gives the team something to lean on heading into next season.
“I think that this team’s brought a lot of respect back to our program. I’m proud of them for that,” head coach Mark Fox said. “Because when Kentavious (Caldwell-Pope) left I can remember the meeting that day, they still didn’t waver that they felt they could have a good team. And they stayed with it and I’m proud of them for that.”
Said Brandon Morris, a sophomore forward: “We’ve had a long season, from starting out slow and bouncing back, getting 19 wins. I think we’ve brought a lot of pride back to this program.”
Kentucky head coach John Calipari said after Saturday’s game that Georgia should be an at-large selection to the NCAAs. Bracket experts say the Bulldogs have no shot at it now, and even Fox didn’t go as far as Calipari.
“I haven’t dug into the stuff. I think we should be in the conversation,” Fox said.
But Georgia’s head coach did rail against the perceived selection criteria, which he said is too weighted towards computer numbers and nonconference play – the two factors bringing down Georgia’s bid.
“If this is just about mathematics, OK, that’s how we’re going to pick the NCAA tournament, (then) anybody can outsmart a formula and skew the statistics to make yourself look better. You’ve gotta look and see who the best teams are,” Fox said. “I think what’s been lost in some of the media reports is it’s all math. Who’s got the best teams right now, who’s playing the best right now, because teams do change during the year.
“And games in November shouldn’t be more important than games in January and February. Those games shouldn’t be more important. And league play should still matter. If it doesn’t, then why do we have leagues? And I agree with the body of work philosophy, but I still think you’ve gotta take into account who’s playing the best at the end of the year.”
Mann and Frazier
Charles Mann is Georgia’s leading scorer, but he sat for a big chunk of the second half despite only having two fouls.
“Coaches decision. I don’t know,” he said.
Fox said the decision was a combination of Mann’s play and that of his backup, freshman J.J. Frazier. The 5-10 freshman once again provided a spark when he entered in the first half, after Mann picked up his second foul. Mann started the second half, but was yanked early after missing a 3-pointer, and stayed out for an extended period.
“Charles, we’ve had to ride him hard,” Fox said. “And just trying to get him back started into rhythm, get him loose, get his mind right, I think it was about both of them.”