ATHENS -- The basketball season has just begun, but Georgia is already playing important games. It failed in its first one, but this week brings a chance to make up for that.
Or make things even worse.
Georgia is in New York City this week for two more tests: Wednesday night against No. 10 Gonzaga and Friday against either St. John’s or Minnesota. The games are part of the NIT Season Tip-Off Classic.
For a team with legitimate aspirations for the NCAA tournament, games like this are vital. The Bulldogs (3-1) lost in their season opener at Georgia Tech, making at least one win in New York close to a necessity.
“This year we especially put the emphasis on this month,” senior forward Nemanja Djurisic said. “We have a tough schedule, and we’re trying to stack up more wins coming into the SEC. So it’s very important.”
The non-conference season has been Georgia’s undoing the past couple of years, when it has struggled in these kinds of tournaments. It was 0-for-3 in last year’s Charleston Classic, and two years ago, it was 0-2 in a tournament in Brooklyn, New York, (although to be fair Georgia was competitive in those losses -- to ranked Indiana and UCLA teams).
Returning the nucleus of a team that won 20 games last year, Georgia head coach Mark Fox basically has admitted that there are no excuses for a slow start.
“What’s important for us is we go up there (to New York) and play well and we come home with something,” Fox said. “We’re gonna play a great team.”
Gonzaga (4-0) hasn’t just been beating teams, it has been demolishing them. Last week it beat St. Joseph’s 94-42. A few days later it beat St. Thomas Aquinas, a Division II team, 109-55.
“I know they’re really, really, really good, and that might be an understatement,” Georgia forward Marcus Thornton said. “They have a great team, a great program year in and year out. So we’re looking forward to it.”
Fox said Gonzaga “probably” would be as good as any team the Bulldogs face this season.
“I mean I know Kentucky’s great, and we’ve got a lot of good teams in our league,” Fox said. “But this is a great basketball team, they’ve got an experienced team, and we’ll have to play very, very well to give us a chance to win. But it’s time for another test like that.”
Friday’s game won’t be very easy either. St. John’s (3-0) was picked to finish third in the Big East and has a strong backcourt. Minnesota (3-1, with the loss being to Louisville), was picked to finish ninth in the Big Ten.
The rest of the non-conference schedule has plenty of other challenges: Colorado, Seton Hall and Mercer at home and at Kansas State and Chattanooga.
Those are chances to get some quality wins, but just as much a chance of having an ugly non-conference record.
“It’s definitely crucial for us to go up there and perform well,” Thornton said.