ATHENS -- It’s a strange thing, but a refreshing one for the Georgia men’s basketball program: There is talk of RPI, heralding of quality wins, and the NCAA tournament isn’t a far-fetched dream.
In previous years, Georgia finished non-conference play talking about the need to improve and the importance of a clean slate in SEC play. This season, however, the Bulldogs enter the conference season with a legitimate NCAA resume, and the need is simply to keep it rolling.
“We set a goal at the beginning of the season that we wanted to be at least 9-3 before conference play. And we accomplished it,” Georgia junior guard Charles Mann said Saturday, after his team dispatched Norfolk State 63-50 at Stegeman Coliseum. “But there’s many more games to be won in the future.”
After winning only six games in non-conference play the previous two seasons, Georgia won nine this time, including Seton Hall, Colorado and Kansas State. The Bulldogs entered the weekend with an RPI rank of 19, according to the CBS Sports website.
The biggest game for Georgia’s NCAA hopes Saturday wasn’t its own. Seton Hall handed No. 6 Villanova its first loss of the season. Georgia’s win over Seton Hall last month continues to look like a major stamp on its resume.
“Hopefully, in the NCAA selection committee’s eyes, the games in November and December matter more than the league games,” Georgia head coach Mark Fox said.
But Fox predictably blanched at the idea that his team could rest on its non-conference resume.
“We’re not in the NCAA tournament. We don’t have a ticket yet. We’re just in line,” Fox said, adding: “We’re just in a different place in the line than we were last year.”
The SEC also looks improved this season, beginning with Georgia’s opening opponent. Arkansas (11-2) returns most everybody from a team that beat Kentucky twice last season, as Fox pointed out.
Still, last season, Georgia went 12-6 in SEC play, finishing tied with Kentucky for second place, yet didn’t make the NCAA tournament. This year, based on what it has accomplished thus far, the Bulldogs are in much better position.
“It’s a league that should get five (or) six teams in the tournament,” Fox said. “And so now our goal has got to be to play well enough to stay in that mix.”
Said junior guard Kenny Gaines, “We have a different team, a different mindset as a team. I feel like we came out early this season and got a good handle on how we want to play. I feel like now we transition over to SEC play, and we’ve just gotta play hard.”
It wasn’t the easiest finish for Georgia on Saturday. In fact it was a bit of a slog, as Norfolk State won most of the hustle points, including 18 offensive rebounds.
J.J. Frazier, the 5-foot-10 point guard, was the difference. The sophomore had a game-high 20 points off the bench, hitting four 3-pointers, a number of them in key spots in the second half.
Norfolk State (9-7) rallied to within four early in the second half. Frazier answered by scoring eight points in a six-minute span, then later hit a 3 with a couple minutes left, pushing the lead back to 11.
“He’s everywhere, quick,” Gaines said of Frazier. “He’s that glue guy that we need sometimes when the starters are lagging a bit. J.J. can fill it up, get some steals and get some (deflections), help us get out in transition.”
Gaines and the starters had quieter games, although Mann had a double-double (10 points and 10 rebounds).
The Bulldogs were playing three days after winning at Kansas State, and three days before opening SEC play.
“I was worried about the game, I really was,” Fox said. “I didn’t like our approach at shoot-around, I’ll be honest with you. But you’ve got to be mature enough to show up every day and be a mature enough competitor to show up. The fortunate thing is, J.J. did. J.J. came to play, and played well. We had some other guys not play so well.”