The top-ranked basketball team in this state wouldn’t, we concede, be top-ranked in many states. That team, surprising to many/most, isn’t the one including the player who could be the first pick in the June NBA draft. Indeed, the team with the famous Ant Man isn’t even second among Georgia assemblages. From Ken Pomeroy’s ratings:
No. 84: Georgia Tech.
No. 93: Georgia State.
No. 94: Georgia.
As we speak, the in-state squad with the best chance to make the NCAA tournament is the same as it has been every year since 2015. It’s Georgia State, under new management but still near the top of the Sun Belt. Thing is, the Sun Belt remains a one-bid league, which is among the reasons Ron Hunter left to coach Tulane. He’d wearied of starting every season knowing his team’s fate would rest on one week in March. The only way a Sun Belt team crashes the Big Dance is by winning the Sun Belt tournament.
Georgia Tech and Georgia play in Power 5 conferences, which usually affords wiggle room. The relative weakness of both the ACC and SEC, however, could be both boon and booby prize. There’s still time for both teams, each of which is below .500 in league play, to rise toward the middle of the pack. Thing is, just be middling mightn’t be enough.
The ACC and SEC combined for 14 berths in the 2019 NCAA field. The latest installment of ESPN Bracketology has Joe Lunardi assigning nine bids to the two, the snooty ACC snagging but four. (And that’s with N.C. State, which just lost consecutive games to Tech and North Carolina, getting the fourth.) It’s nearly February, but there’s still time to move in both leagues. Goodness knows there’s room.
We mentioned recently that Tech could well be one of the ACC’s best half-dozen teams. On cue, the Jackets lost narrowly to Notre Dame, which hasn’t won since; to Virginia, which arrived having lost three in a row, and to Louisville, which is rather good. There are no unwinnable games left on the Yellow Jackets’ schedule — the return match with Louisville is here — but can we bank on a team that hasn’t yet won three in a row to go on anything resembling a tear?
As of Jan. 28, Tech isn’t on the bubble. It’s at least four wins from climbing close to the bubble. Its margin for error is down to the nub. It’s 9-11. If it loses even two more regular-season games, that’d make 13. Another loss in the ACC tournament would be14. It would be difficult bordering on impossible to envision a scenario in which a 14-loss ACC team makes the Dance in the most tepid ACC season since super-expansion.
Georgia, which beat Tech in November, is in similar dire straits. The Bulldogs were dealt a rough start to the conference schedule — first five games: Kentucky twice, at Auburn, at Mississippi and Tennessee in Athens — and could win only once. Then they lost at home to Ole Miss, rated 128th by KenPom. In a game Georgia had to win, it lost by 10. The famous Anthony Edwards took 12 shots, 10 of which were 3-pointers. He finished with 13 points. Rayshaun Hammonds, described by Edwards after the Tech victory as “the best 4-man in the country,” had four points.
The Bulldogs have worked 19 games, and their best victory, per KenPom, is over No. 48 Tennessee, which is among Lunardi’s “next four out.” Winning at Memphis, then ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press poll, on Jan. 4 seemed a big deal, but the Tigers were without second-leading scorer D.J. Jeffries and the heralded freshman James Wiseman had already left the team. Memphis is 2-3 since losing to Georgia and has slipped to No. 61 in KenPom. Lunardi lists the Tigers among his “last four in.”
The Bulldogs need not just victories but major victories. Trouble is, the schedule includes only two remaining games against teams in the AP Top 25 — against No. 17 Auburn at Stegeman Coliseum on Feb. 19 and at No. 23 LSU on March 7. Georgia only has eight losses, which works in its favor, but the SEC pecking order has been established: There’s Kentucky and Auburn and LSU, and then there’s Florida and Arkansas and then Alabama and Tennessee and Mississippi State, and now you’ve ticked off more than half the league without mentioning the Bulldogs.
The good thing about signing the nation’s No. 1 recruit is that his presence gives you credibility. If you contrive to miss the NCAA tournament with such a talent — LSU did with Ben Simmons and Washington did with Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 draftees in 2016 and 2017 — that credibility gets shredded. Not incidentally, coaches Johnny Jones and Lorenzo Romar were soon displaced.
Tom Crean arrived in Athens talking big (also at length). He has a track record. He took Marquette to the Final Four. He won the Big Ten at Indiana. He seemed a fine hire. Sure enough, his first full recruiting class featured the sort of recruit Georgia hadn’t signed in years. That wasn’t just progress — it was a great leap upward. The catch with one-and-dones, though, is that they’re done after one. Either you win big with them or you spend the rest of your life trying to explain why you didn’t.
There’s still a chance for Georgia to make something of its Ant Man experience, but there can be no more Ole Miss missteps. ESPN’s BPI ranks the Bulldogs, with maybe the most gifted collegian, the nation’s 117th-best team. That shouldn’t be, but there it is.
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