Georgia erratic but ceiling high in tournament

While Mike Bobinski wonders how high the ceiling is for the Georgia Tech basketball program under coach Brian Gregory — just good enough to go 0-11 in close games? — there is a different question being asked in Athens:

Where’s the ceiling for a team that nearly upset semi-pro Kentucky but was bad enough in the same season to lose to semi-Division I Georgia Tech?

“We haven’t played our best basketball yet, and I think all teams going into March want to be able to say that,” Georgia forward Marcus Thornton said. “We can be better. But I don’t know how good better is, and I don’t know how good our best is.”

Just a hunch: Georgia’s best is pretty good. It’s ceiling is pretty high. Like Sweet 16 high.

Don’t take this as a prediction. I wouldn’t predict a Bulldogs’ outcome in March any more than I would the temperatures on consecutive March days in Atlanta. They could go on tremendous runs through the SEC and NCAA tournaments, or they could break a huddle after a timeout and not realize they inadvertently tied their shoes to a row of folding chairs.

When a team leads Kentucky by nine points in the second half and wins six conference road games, yet loses consecutive home games to South Carolina and Auburn and falls to a Tech team that would win only 11 of 30 games the rest of the season, even Sybil thinks you’re unstable.

In some losses, injuries are an excuse. Not in those three losses.

But when the Dogs are healthy and playing together, they are a dangerous team. They have depth and balance, far more than when they reached the tournament in 2011 with Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins. They have a strong backcourt in Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann, and a talented player up front in Thornton.

It says something that they almost removed “unbeaten” as the adjective in front of Kentucky. It also says something about the players’ mindset that they refuse to characterize that game as the team’s best performance this season, even though it probably was.

Thornton: “I would never associate our best basketball in a loss. Ever. I know we did some decent things in that game, but we didn’t win, and that’s the bottom line.”

Those kind of comments please Georgia coach Mark Fox.

“I love the fact they don’t believe in silver medals,” he said. “If you finish second in the Olympics they give you a silver medal. If you finish second in a basketball game they call you loser. If you finish last in medical school they call you doctor. We chose a sport where there’s a winner and a loser and there’s an appreciation for that.”

Fox, however, points to the Kentucky game as one of two performances that stick out. “It was the first time we were pretty healthy and so, yeah, it gave us an indication if we can get healthy and stay that way, what level we’re capable of playing at,” he said. “But moral victories don’t do you a lot of good.”

The other game was a 70-67 win at Vanderbilt on Jan. 14. The Dogs had lost their first two SEC games to Arkansas and LSU and had to go on the road minus three regulars: Juwan Parker (Achilles), Kenny Paul Geno (fractured wrist) and Yante Maten (concussion after getting hit by a car on campus). “We probably played our best against Kentucky and didn’t win,” Fox said. “Our best win was probably at Vanderbilt.”

We should learn in the next week whether Gregory has coached his final game at Tech. Fox doesn’t have to worry about job security. But even given the progress that he has made at Georgia, there would be considerable heat on him from the fan base if the Dogs make quick exits from the SEC or NCAA tournament.

He attributes most of his team’s ups and downs this season mostly to injuries. But remember his words after the Dogs went from a season-high RPI of 20 to a 69-68 loss to Auburn as an 11 1/2-point favorite: “We’ve been smelling ourselves too much. Too many people are telling us how good we are. We haven’t accomplished anything.”

He was right then — and that’s still true. Watch how quickly the air goes out of a 20-win season if Georgia can’t win a postseason game. This isn’t an easy team to predict.

Every opponent might be worrying for the same reason.