Can strange SEC basketball season include Georgia run in Nashville?

Georgia sophomore guard Sahvir Wheeler (2) became the first player in UGA history to record a 'triple double' when he had 14 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds in the Bulldogs' 91-78 upset of LSU on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens. (Photo by Tony Walsh/UGA)
Georgia sophomore guard Sahvir Wheeler (2) became the first player in UGA history to record a 'triple double' when he had 14 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds in the Bulldogs' 91-78 upset of LSU on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens. (Photo by Tony Walsh/UGA)

Credit: Tony Walsh

Credit: Tony Walsh

This college basketball season predictably has been a farce with postponed and canceled games, teams stopping for weeks, restarting, stopping, starting ... you get the picture, if you haven’t been paying attention. Starting next week there could be forfeits for the NCAA’s signature event, the men’s basketball tournament, because of COVID-19 protocols. With few fans in arenas, all games in Indiana and the virus looming over everything, the madness this March will be trying to crown a champion during a pandemic.

College basketball’s weird season includes the SEC standings. Ken Pomerory’s advanced statistics rate the SEC as the third-best league in college basketball, the highest since it finished ranked second in 2007. That’s somehow happened with Kentucky finishing in the bottom half of the standings. To make the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats probably need to win the bracket that they sometimes treat as a rest stop before going all-out in the real one.

That’s not the only SEC oddity. Alabama won the regular-season title for the first time since 2002 and second time since 1976. Auburn, the last SEC team to make the NCAA tournament’s Final Four, won’t be in Nashville this week for the conference tourney because of a self-imposed ban for NCAA rules violations. OK, that one was predictable.

SEC men’s basketball is off kilter this March. Under those circumstances, why can’t the 10th-seeded Georgia Bulldogs make a run in Nashville starting Thursday?

I don’t mean winning the whole thing and earning the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Bookmakers are giving the Bulldogs 80-1 odds to do that. I’m talking about winning three games to make it to Sunday’s final. In a normal year I wouldn’t even try to make the case, but this is the year to embrace the improbable.

It’s also the case that this is Tom Crean’s best Georgia team in three seasons. Granted, that means it has risen above bad to something approaching respectable. The Bulldogs were 2-16 in league play his first season, 5-13 last season and 7-11 this season. What’s encouraging from a program-building perspective is that Crean has produced his best results at Georgia with a team led by freshman and sophomores.

The best player is sophomore point guard Sahvir Wheeler, who leads the SEC in assists. Freshman K.D. Johnson has scored 20 or more points in four of 15 games played. Sophomore big man Toumani Camara has gone from being a minimal part of the team’s offense early last season to the third-leading scorer this season.

Georgia has been inconsistent, as young teams tend to be. The Bulldogs have only two winning streaks this season, two and three games long, and have lost three of their past four. They also own victories against projected NCAA Tournament teams Missouri and LSU within the past 22 days. It could go either way this week for Georgia: one-and-done or tough out.

Wheeler was voted second-team All-SEC this week. He was a good recruit out of Houston, but was overshadowed in a class that included Anthony Edwards of Holy Spirit Prep. Edwards was the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA draft. Georgia’s Rayshaun Hammonds also decided to go pro after last season. That was a lot of talent out the door.

The Bulldogs transitioned from a team that relied heavily on Edwards and Hammonds to make things happen to a more egalitarian outfit. At Marquette and Indiana, Crean combined his intricate offensive sets with top-tier talent to produce great scoring teams. This season the Bulldogs have managed to score as efficiently as last season despite losing Edwards and Hammonds.

That’s an indication that the Bulldogs can be even better next season if they keep this group together. Winning two games this week would provide more evidence that the program is on the rise. Stringing together three games could get the Bulldogs on the NCAA bubble.

Georgia already owns three “Quad 1” victories, which the selection committee (allegedly) considers most valuable. If Georgia is playing Sunday, it will have earned two and probably three more Quad 1 wins. That might be enough for the Bulldogs to get a serious look for an at-large bid if they were to lose the final. That would leave them with a 17-12 overall record, but another thing about this strange season is that no one really knows how the committee will sort through the mess to pick the field.

Georgia concluded the regular season with an 89-79 home loss Alabama on Saturday. But the Crimson Tide (21-6, 16-2) are the class of the league, and Georgia could view that scoring margin as progress. Alabama beat the Bulldogs 115-82 on Feb. 13 in Tuscaloosa.

The Tide finished ahead of Arkansas (21-5, 13-4) for the regular-season crown while splitting two games against the Hogs. Those two teams are well clear of the rest of the league. The composite NCAA Tournament projections at Monday had Alabama as the top No. 2 seed and Arkansas as the top No. 3. The next SEC team in the field, Tennessee, projected as a No. 6 seed.

The other league teams predicted to make the cut were Mizzou, Florida and LSU. If the Bulldogs beat the Tigers, their path to the final would mean upsetting Arkansas and winning a rubber match against likely semifinal opponent LSU. The second part of that equation would be the toughest to solve for Georgia.

The Razorbacks beat the Bulldogs 99-69 on Jan. 9 in Fayetteville. They’ve won 11 consecutive league games, including a decisive home victory over top-seeded Bama, and are aiming for their first SEC tourney title since 2000. Arkansas has had a couple of minor wobbles since its last loss, at Oklahoma State on Jan. 30.

The Razorbacks trailed Texas A&M at home in the final minute Saturday before freshman Moses Moody, a top NBA prospect, put them ahead for good with a 3-pointer. The Aggies. coached by former Crean assistant Buzz Williams, nearly pulled the upset with a common recipe: make a lot of 3-pointers when they usually don’t.

Georgia also isn’t a good 3-point shooting team. But maybe the Bulldogs get hot from outside this week. They’ve had some of their best defensive efforts in the past six weeks. Put those two elements together for three days straight, and there’s a decent chance they’ll be playing Sunday.

It starts against Missouri. The Bulldogs beat the Tigers 80-70 three weeks ago at Stegeman Coliseum after trailing by 13 points with 15 minutes to play. Missouri’s All-SEC center, Jeremiah Tilmon, didn’t play in that game because of a leave of absence. He’s expected to play in the rematch.

An opening loss to Mizzou wouldn’t be devastating for the Bulldogs. They are a year away from having the right mix of talent and experience to be a real threat in the SEC. It would be disappointing for Georgia to last only one day in Nashville. Making it to Friday’s semifinal would be good and going to the final would be a wild, improbable ride.

I won’t say it’s impossible during this weird SEC basketball season.

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