Georgia Bulldogs staying ‘locked in’ as Vanderbilt visits

Jan 31, 2021; Auburn, AL, USA; Georgia Bulldogs guard K.D. Johnson (0) and guard Justin Kier (5) react during the game between Auburn and Georgia at Auburn Arena. Mandatory Credit: Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics

Credit: Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics

Credit: Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics

Jan 31, 2021; Auburn, AL, USA; Georgia Bulldogs guard K.D. Johnson (0) and guard Justin Kier (5) react during the game between Auburn and Georgia at Auburn Arena. Mandatory Credit: Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics

ATHENS – Not by any stretch of the imagination has Georgia played to the level that fans or coach Tom Crean had hoped for this season. But the Bulldogs have shown flashes of being a very good basketball team of late, and the reality is, the chances of an extended postseason are in reach.

That will be dependent upon Georgia (11-6, 4-6 SEC) stringing together some wins. They have an opportunity to do that, with Vanderbilt (5-8, 1-6) coming to town Saturday and a road trip to Texas A&M (8-7, 2-6) on Wednesday. Those teams are currently 14th and 13th in the 14-team SEC heading into this weekend.

The Bulldogs return to Stegeman Coliseum brimming with confidence, especially on offense. After Wednesday’s 91-86 road win at Auburn, Georgia is averaging 78 points a game and features seven players scoring 8.9 points or better.

“The beauty of the basketball within our group is that everybody shares the ball and everybody plays the right way,” said senior Justin Kier, who averages 9.9 points a game and leads the SEC with 34 steals. “When you win while doing that, that’s the highest joy of the game. Everybody can feel that joy, everybody can feel that stardom.”

Saturday’s game was set for a 1 p.m. tipoff. But it was moved to 6 p.m. to replace Arkansas at Texas A&M, which was postponed because of COVID-19 protocols within the Aggies’ program. It still will be televised on the SEC Network.

The win over Auburn arguably was their most impressive outing of the season and avenged an earlier 18-point loss to the Tigers in Athens. Not only did the victory feature Georgia shooting and rebounding exceptionally well, more important is that it counted as a Quadrant 1 (Q1) win on the NCAA selection committee’s worksheet.

UGA is now 2-3 in Q1 games, the most valuable kind when it comes to quantifying postseason selection. And there are going to be more of those to be had. That’s what makes taking care of business against the Commodores and Aggies over the next five days so important. If the Bulldogs can hold serve in those two contests, giving them four wins in a row, they have Q1 opponents waiting on the other side.

Five of Georgia’s final six games will be against Alabama, Missouri, Florida, LSU and Tennessee, all of which will qualify as Q1 or Q2 contests.

Of course, you won’t get the Bulldogs looking at anything beyond Saturday’s competition.

“You have to stay absolutely focused. Every day has to be its own masterpiece so to speak, like John Wooden would say,” Georgia coach Tom Crean said. “You’ve got to do a great job each day of maxing it out and making sure you’re not leaving anything to chance, that you’re not leaving any stone unturned. And, at the same time, that you’re not leaving your legs on the practice court. That’s really important, and we’re very cognizant of that.”

If anything, Georgia appears to have gained strength of late. Some of that may be because it’s playing so many players. Only point guard Sahvir Wheeler (34.3) is playing more than 30 minutes a game in conference play, and as many as 12 players are part of the regular rotation, depending on specific matchups.

Against Auburn, the Bulldogs substituted for the undersized Wheeler more as he battled to contain prolific-scoring guard Sharife Cooper. That helped considerably as Cooper was limited to 14 points before he added another seven from the free-throw line in the final two minute of an out-of-reach margin.

Georgia will be well-advised to employ a similar strategy against Vanderbilt’s point guard Scotty Pippen Jr. The son of famously successful former Chicago Bulls star Scottie Pippen has blossomed as a sophomore. He enters Saturday’s game second in the SEC in scoring (21.7 ppg) and assists (5.5) and among conference leaders in field-goal (.464) and free-throw (.830) percentage.

“He is one of the highest-usage guards in the nation right now,” coach Tom Crean said. “He’s playing at an extremely high rate, he’s shooting the ball real well, he’s getting to the rim. He’s drawing fouls, and it’s a lot like preparing for Sharife Cooper in the fact that the ball is in his hands a lot. He’s doing a really good job of initiating contact and getting rewarded for it at the foul line, so we have to do a good job of keeping him in front of us.”

If the Bulldogs can do a decent job of that and stay hot on offense, they will be in position to win three games in a row for the first time since conference play began. If Georgia could somehow win five of the final eight regular-season games – these next two, then three of the last six – it would head to the SEC Tournament with some sort of postseason bid within its grasp.

Forgotten in the past lore of Georgia basketball under former coach Tubby Smith is the 1995-96 team, which took an excruciating overtime loss Syracuse to end its season, but which started the SEC season 2-6. Then it won seven of its final eight and got hot in the SEC Tournament on the way to earning a No. 9 NCAA Tournament seed.

Not that anybody in Georgia’s locker room is talking about such things.

“I don’t think we’re worried about our future as much as we’re worried about what’s going on right now,” Kier said. “Obviously we all have goals and stuff like that. But to continue this run that we have, we just have to attack each day, day-by-day.”

That’s exactly what Crean wants to hear from his players, though he’s certain postseason wishes are dancing in their heads.

“They’re aware it,” Crean said. “It’s very clear that you have to stay locked in on the next game; you just do. But they know those types of things. I’m sure they talk about it. I hope they talk about it. But day-to-day they have to stay locked into the next game.”