Georgia hopes to make ‘crazy things happen’ in SEC Tournament

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

ATHENS — “Crazier things have happened.” That has been coach Mike White’s message to the Georgia Bulldogs as they’ve prepared for the SEC Tournament this week.

And he should know.

Georgia fans won’t forget the 2008 SEC Tournament in which the Bulldogs entered as a bottom seed with basically no hope and the expectation of their coach being fired at season’s end. Then, a tornado blew through downtown Atlanta, Sundiata Gaines got hot and the Bulldogs emerged four days later as SEC champions.

White knows the story well. He should. He was part of it.

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White was an Ole Miss assistant coach and was in charge of presenting the scouting report on the Bulldogs for that game. That certainly seemed like an easy assignment at the time, considering the Rebels had just beaten Georgia 76-62 the weekend before in Athens.

Then, of course, Dave Bliss banked in a 17-footer with 0.4 seconds remaining in overtime, the Bulldogs advanced with a 97-95 victory and Ole Miss went back to Oxford.

“Unfortunately, I had a first-row seat for that one,” said White, who earlier competed for the Rebels as a player. “… We were on the bubble and really needing that win.”

The Rebels entered that game 21-9, while the Bulldogs were 13-16.

A decidedly different – and certainly less ominous – situation awaits the Bulldogs as they prepare to tip off in the first round of the tournament at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee, late Wednesday night. For starters, Georgia has a better record than their opponent, LSU, it beat the Tigers earlier this season and enters as the higher seed. Also, White is in the first year of a rebuild with the Bulldogs.

But considering Georgia (16-15, 6-12 SEC) is entering the tournament off five consecutive losses and really hasn’t played particularly well for the past month, nobody has a lot of faith in the Bulldogs at this juncture, the Bulldogs themselves probably chief among the doubters.

They’re late-season struggles have to be put into perspective. There was an ill-timed concussion that sidelined starting point guard Terry Roberts for 2-1/2 games and affected him beyond that, and there was a schedule that rivaled the toughest in the league for February.

By the time the Bulldogs reached more winnable games, such as Florida at home and South Carolina on the road the last week of the regular season, their confidence was shot.

“I think we lost some confidence offensively and obviously are not converting (3-point shots),” White said as the Bulldogs prepared to leave Athens on Tuesday. “You’re not going to get much better looks than we’ve had the last two (games), and we’ve just got to snap out of it. Hopefully we can make a few early to get us going.”

Again, Georgia is capable. Three-point shooting was an area of marked improvement displayed by the Bulldogs for much of the season. Seven players have reached double-digits in made 3′s this season, the most since eight Georgia players did so in 1997-98.

But players who were lighting it up earlier in the season have gone cold here at the end. No one has struggled more mightily than junior Kario Oquendo, who is 0-for-11 from behind the arc in the past two games. Roberts is 5-of-23 on those shots (.217) since suffering a concussion Feb. 1. Notably, those are Georgia’s top two scorers.

“We haven’t been really making shots like we should,” said fifth-year senior Braelen Bridges, who will play his last game for the Bulldogs when they lose. “We’ve missed some very good looks. A lot of open shots we usually make haven’t been falling for us lately.”

Georgia wasn’t exactly filling it up the night LSU came to Athens earlier this season. The Bulldogs needed Justin Hill’s layup with 4.2 seconds remaining to score a 65-63 victory.

That was one of only two victories the Bulldogs recorded in February. The other was against Kentucky, of all teams.

The Tigers (13-18, 2-16) also are in the first year of a rebuild under coach Matt McMahon. He and White are two of six new SEC coaches who will be putting teams on the floor at Bridgestone Arena. McMahon’s project started out great, with a 12-1 start that included a road win over Arkansas. They’re 1-17 since.

“I know records and I understand all that, but they’re a good team,” White warned. “They’ve beaten three NCAA Tournament (caliber) teams, and we’ve dropped a few in a row here. This is a really, really hard league, a league that’s going to get at least eight teams in (the NCAA Tournament), and (LSU has) been very, very competitive and shown a lot of resiliency.”

Resilient wouldn’t be a word to describe Georgia down the stretch. But, of course, tournament time means a chance to start anew.

On his weekly call-in show Monday night and again Tuesday, White raved about his team’s effort and performance in practices. While a lot of teams are decelerating this time of year, the Bulldogs have cranked it up in workouts and will continue to through their shoot-around in Nashville on Wednesday morning.

UGA entered spring break this week, so there have been no distractions beyond hoops. And with tipoff not expected to get underway until 9:30 p.m. EST at the earliest, there should be plenty of time to rest beforehand. Lose Wednesday and there will be an entire offseason to rest.

So, again, White reminded his team, “crazier things have happened.”

“That’s literally the phrase that I used yesterday in the locker room,” White said. “Anything can happen come tournament time. We’re capable. Stranger things have happened.”

The forecast in Nashville does not call for any tornadoes on Broadway. Then, again, there was no such prediction for Atlanta in 2008.