No, Mark Fox insists, he’s not surprised.
The question he’s getting now is predictable: Having started the season 1-4 and exiting non-conference play at 6-6, is he surprised to see this Georgia team sitting where it is now, alone in third place in the SEC, five games above .500 in conference play with three to go?
“I’ve always thought we could have a good team,” Fox said late Tuesday night after the Bulldogs dispatched Missouri for the second time this season, 71-56. “So they’re not proving anything to me. They’re playing like I thought they could play and I still think they can get better.”
The Bulldogs (16-11, 10-5 SEC) will need to keep up the good work if they hope to enhance their postseason resume. Coming into Tuesday’s game ninth among SEC teams in RPI (88), Georgia nevertheless has a two-game cushion over five other teams for third place in the league. That’s a coveted place to be as the top four finishers get a double-bye into the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament, which will be played in three weeks.
Missouri, which came in with an RPI of 46, has now lost to Georgia twice. But the Bulldogs still have a ways to go to start talking realistically about any shot at an NCAA tournament at-large bid.
“Our league has been criticized, but yesterday our league had nine teams in the Top 100, which is as many as everybody but the ACC (also Pac-12),” Fox said. “I think this league has a lot of good teams in it. I’d like to see it get more respect. But we haven’t had a chance to play a lot of Top 50 teams in our building.”
None other than Missouri, in fact. Through a fluke of the unbalanced, 18-game SEC schedule, the Bulldogs did not get Florida, Kentucky or Tennessee at home this season. They lost to all three on the road.
But they’re doing quite well with the rest of the league. Tuesday’s win was the sixth in the past seven games for the Bulldogs and Missouri became the second team in a row they have swept home-and-away. Georgia will try to make it three in a row when they travel to Arkansas (18-9, 7-7) on Saturday. Georgia defeated the Razorbacks 66-61 in overtime on Jan. 18.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence,” said sophomore guard Charles Mann, who led the Bulldogs with 19 points Tuesday. “We feel we can beat any team in the country if we play our best basketball. But we can’t think about (postseason play). We just have to handle our part and whatever happens, happens.”
Junior forward Marcus Thornton added 15 for the Bulldogs. Georgia overcame some early foul-shooting woes — finished 16-of-26 after starting 0-for-6 — and was out-rebounded for just the second time in SEC play, 38 to 31.
Nevertheless, Tuesday night’s nationally-televised game was remarkably stress free. The Bulldogs trailed twice in the first half and never again. They did their bidding with defense, holding the high-scoring Tigers to a season-low points total and handcuffing star shooters Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson. Coming in averaging 38 points between them, they combined for 34 but missed 20 shots between them and Missouri shot 32 percent for the game.
The game turned in Georgia’s favor in the final minute of the first-half. Junior forward Nemanja Djurisic, who has been in a protracted shooting slump, made 3-pointers on Georgia’s last two possessions. The second one came from 23 feet one-tenth of a second before the halftime after Missouri played for the last shot but missed it.
“It was good to go into halftime with a little bit of a cushion,” said Djurisic, who was unable to score the rest of the night. “But either way we played really well and defensively we were stopping them. We played very well against a very good team.”
Georgia simply overpowered the Tigers thereafter, outscoring them 38-18 in the paint and 17-4 off the bench. When Kenny Gaines and Donte Williams encountered foul trouble in the first half and early in the second, Juwan Parker, Cameron Forte and Tim Dixon stepped in and kept Missouri at bay.
The Bulldogs were simply better. Which should come as no surprise, Fox reiterated.
There was an adjustment period Georgia had to go through early in the season as they learned to play without NBA lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. But since the calendar turned to 2014, the Bulldogs seem to have found their way.
“I’ve always felt like we were a good team,” Fox said. “I’ve never wavered on that. We needed some adversity to become who we are now.”