Georgia can be next SEC football school to get good at men’s basketball

There always was the chance that things would get harder for Kentucky’s John Calipari if more SEC schools cared about men’s basketball. Calipari was piling up regular-season league titles, and as many tournament championships as he felt like winning, on the way to NCAA Final Fours. But Kentucky’s decade-long grip on the league might start slipping if the places that love football started channeling similar energy and money into men’s basketball.

Well, they did start loving basketball more at Alabama and Auburn. Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU rekindled their passion for the game. Sure enough, the Wildcats have stumbled since that happened, and that’s not even judging by their impossibly high standards. Kentucky is on the NCAA Tournament bubble a year after losing in the first round and two years after posting its first losing record since 1989.

Kentucky’s decline makes the SEC more egalitarian than it’s been in a long time. There’s an opening for Georgia, coached by Mike White, to join the football schools that also are good at men’s basketball. Not just good enough to score an occasional upset or hope to be invited to the Big Dance. Good enough to expect to beat the league’s best teams, win SEC titles and make postseason runs.

That won’t happen this season. The Bulldogs beat Kentucky on Saturday, the same day they marked the 40th anniversary of their only Final Four team. But that was after Georgia had lost six of seven games. A close victory over last-place LSU at home in the next game was a reminder that Georgia (16-10, 6-7 SEC) still is closer to the league’s bottom than its top.

Further evidence of that will come in UGA’s next two games. The Bulldogs are at No. 1 Alabama on Saturday and at Arkansas on Tuesday. Georgia could climb into the discussion for an NCAA Tournament berth by winning both games. That’s not happening, especially after Bama lost Wednesday night. The Crimson Tide will be ready for the scrappy visitors from Athens.

But Georgia has a decent shot of winning each of its final three games: home versus Missouri and Florida, at South Carolina. Do that, and the Bulldogs will finish with 19 regular-season victories, the most since Mark Fox’s team won 20 games before the 2015 postseason. That was the second time the Bulldogs made the NCAA tourney with Fox. His results at UGA looked pretty good after the program tanked with Tom Crean.

White already has produced outcomes much better than Crean’s last season. That’s not saying much. The worst season in UGA’s modern history shouldn’t set the bar. White still must win another league game to match Crean’s 7-11 SEC record in 2020-21. Crean also won a game in the 2020 SEC Tournament before COVID-19 ended it.

White still has a lot of work to do to make the Bulldogs a consistent winner. Already he has helped to right a listing program. The Bulldogs are on track to post a winning record with a slapped-together core of six transfer players and the two best holdovers from last season, Kario Oquendo and Braelen Bridges.

This season’s leading scorer, Terry Roberts, could choose not to play an extra season in 2023-24. If Roberts leaves, then the transition should be smooth because White has spread the minutes and shots around the roster this season. White also has two national top-100 recruits on the way. A surprisingly good Year 1 for White should be the start of a trend instead of a fluke.

There’s a sizeable group of Bulldogs fans ready for big-time men’s basketball. That was evident when the program set attendance records with Crean as coach despite poor results. Anthony Edwards was responsible for much of the interest, but Georgia also set an attendance record in the season before he arrived.

Georgia averaged nearly 7,000 fans per game at Stegeman Coliseum last season. That was with awful basketball and the ongoing pandemic. The Bulldogs are drawing more than 8,000 spectators per game this season. They’ll pack the place for men’s basketball if it becomes a top-tier program in the SEC.

Georgia signaled that it was serious about men’s basketball by hiring Crean, the former Indiana coach. White must have noticed. He headed for Athens when he was ready to leave Gainesville even though Georgia’s program was at its lowest point.

At the time, it seemed as if White was getting out of Florida while the getting was good. The top six scorers on his last Florida team were seniors, and the Gators saw their streak of NCAA tourney bids end at four years. The Associated Press reported that White had grown weary of criticism from a “toxic” segment of Florida’s fan base.

Those supporters had become accustomed to seeing the Gators win championships with White’s predecessor, Billy Donovan. He’s one of the few coaches in the past 30 years to break Kentucky’s hold on the SEC. During 19 seasons at Florida, Donovan won six SEC regular-season titles and four league tournament. Donovan’s Gators made it to four Final Fours with national championships in 2006 and 2007.

Donovan’s final Florida team posted its first losing record since 1997-98, his second season in Gainesville. White’s Florida’s teams never had a losing SEC record over seven seasons and earned four NCAA tourney berths (and a probable fifth if not for the pandemic canceling the 2020 event). He got the Gators back to the NCAA Elite Eight in his second season but couldn’t make it past the second round in the next three tournament appearances.

If White can duplicate that success at Georgia, it would be the best era of Bulldogs men’s basketball since Hugh Durham was coach. Heck, it would rival any recent run by an SEC program outside of Kentucky. The recent decline of the Wildcats coincided with the rise of Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee and Arkansas. Georgia has a chance to join that list of SEC football schools that also are good at men’s basketball.