Fox teeters here in Year 9 with a team that should be good enough to return the Bulldogs to the NCAA Tournament after a two-year absence. The win over rival Florida upped the Bulldogs to 13-8 overall, 4-5 in the SEC and gave them their first victory over Florida coach Mike White in five attempts.
Such has been the urgent case pretty much all of January, with Georgia running up against game after game that “will turn this sucka around.” And, yet, said sucka remained on course for a first-round NIT home game, at best.
Tuesday was refreshingly different.
Having spectacularly failed to finish in games against Auburn and Arkansas (giving back 16-point halftime leads) and having lost another late lead to Kansas State, this time Georgia widened its advantage. I had been working on this theory that the inevitable moment that Fox throws off his suit coat in a trademark gesture of pique is the Bulldogs signal to crumble. But let it be noted that Tuesday, Fox flung his very nice jacket with 5:18 left to play and Georgia up by five. And the Bulldogs outscored Florida 15-8 the rest of the way.
A combination of Georgia’s commitment to defense as well as Florida’s wandering aim – shooting only 31 percent from the floor in the second half – led to some relatively carefree final moments.
In the game’s last minute, the home crowd paid the victor the ultimate compliment, chanting, “Just Like Football! Just Like Football!” High praise, indeed.
Whether this single game is the fulcrum for lifting the Bulldogs into the tournament conversation is the biggest uncertainty yet. At the most, as Fox put it, “Tonight, hopefully they remembered that they’re a good team.”
Questions about their guard play and their ability to score beyond options No. 1 through 10 (some variation of Get Ball To Yante Maten) will follow them through the nine remaining conference games.
To the winner goes the final word this night.
Asked to give his own state-of-the-program address, Fox had a more expansive take than my own:
“It’s about trying to beat the best teams. It’s about trying to get quality wins. Ten people (making up the tournament selection committee) are going to go into a room and figure out your fate. The last two years we’ve been right on the bubble – didn’t have enough top-50 wins. Now I think we have four or five of them and it’s not even February
(That’s five wins over teams with a current top-50 RPI – Alabama, Saint Mary’s, Temple, Marquette and now Florida).
“In this league there are going to be some losses because the league is so stinking good. You have to win your share and keep grinding.
“We’ve had some struggles and just about every team is going to have a period like that. You hope you have one of those bursts and you get out of it.”
If there is a legitimate burst to be had, now would be the time to burst away.