ATHENS — When the subject was mentioned, Georgia guard Kenny Gaines let out an exasperated sigh.
“Man, I wish I knew the answer, so we could just fix it immediately,” he said, snapping his fingers. “But we’ve just gotta work on it.”
In the big picture, slow starts to the season have doomed Georgia’s NCAA tournament hopes the previous two seasons. It’s in danger of happening again, thanks to slow starts to games.
Georgia (4-3) heads into Sunday’s game against Colorado badly needing a win for its non-conference resume. It has missed the first three opportunities, thanks in large part to the opening minutes.
Georgia Tech led from the start and by as many as 16 in the first half. Gonzaga jumped out to a 12-2 lead in the first four minutes. Minnesota jumped out to a 21-8 lead.
The Gonzaga game would have been tough anyway. But Georgia managed to make it a game late against Georgia Tech and Minnesota.
“We can’t get down early, especially not against good teams,” Gaines said. “Ten, 12 points, then we’re just fighting uphill the rest of the game. It just adds another level of adversity we could have avoided.”
Colorado (5-1) is yet another tough matchup, as the Buffaloes return the core of a team that made it to the NCAA tournament last year. Junior forward Josh Scott (16.3 points per game, 8.2 rebounds) might be the best frontcourt player Georgia faces this season, according to Georgia head coach Mark Fox.
So the Bulldogs need another big game from Marcus Thornton, their senior forward who has been superb to start the season. Thornton is leading the team in points (13.2 per game) and rebounds (7.5).
Thornton and fellow senior Nemanja Djurisic (12.2 points, 5.2 rebounds) haven’t been the problem. When Georgia has struggled, it’s because it’s not getting what it needs out of Gaines and Charles Mann, its junior guards.
The turnover-prone Mann, the point guard, was demoted in Tuesday’s game against Chattanooga. But he played well enough that he’ll get the start Sunday, Fox said.
Gaines, who has been working his way back from a month-long bout of mononucleosis, was the hot shooter at Chattanooga. The Bulldogs will need that again Sunday.
Georgia also plays Seton Hall and Mercer this month, then plays at Kansas State on New Year’s Eve. If it is to have a viable resume for the NCAA tournament, it almost certainly has to be 8-4 or better entering conference play.
“Our schedule’s a lot harder than it’s probably ever been,” Fox said. “And I think that we have totally subscribed to the SEC’s theory of upgrading scheduling, and when you do that, you’re gonna have more challenges. We probably could win fewer games this year and be in better position for the NCAA tournament.
“But you’ve gotta win some. And we have lots of opportunities.”
That may have been in the minds of the Bulldogs in those losses. The players have not downplayed the importance of November and December, so they’ve gone into each of those games — and figure to on Sunday as well — aware they badly need the victory.
“There’ve been times we’ve maybe tried too hard and taken some quick shots we didn’t need to take,” Fox said.
Fox sounded just as upset over the team’s defensive starts. He pointed to a couple of the wins — over Stony Brook and Troy — when those teams got off to hot shooting starts.
Fox referred to the “magic level” of intensity, a balance between too hyped and not at all.
“You can never be so high that you’re making mistakes out of being too aggressive, and you can’t be so cool that you don’t have any edge to you,” Fox said. “There’s a magic level you have to play at, and you’ve gotta be able to sustain that level, and really that’s the key for any team.”
It’s possible the Bulldogs have been too aware of the importance of these games, before calming down as the game went on.
“It might be a little bit that we’re trying to feel out the team, early, and once we get comfortable in the game we play them even,” Gaines said. “But it has been a little surprising.
“But we older guys, Nemi, Marcus, Charles and me, we’ve gotta step up and lead the team more early. And not just be more vocal, but show it in our actions on the court.”