UGA is the surprise team at the SEC’s midpoint

It’s crunch time for the Georgia Bulldogs. They arrive at this juncture the epitome of mediocrity: 10-10 overall and 4-4 in SEC play with 10 games left to play.

Expectations weren’t high at the outset, but the overall result is unsatisfactory. Here’s how they got here:

What’s gone right?

The Bulldogs actually got off to a surprisingly good start in SEC play. Having gone 6-6 in non-conference play with no wins of RPI significance, nobody expected Georgia to go into Missouri and knock off what was then a 12-1 team with a No. 21 ranking and the nation’s longest home-court winning streak.

Played in the emotional wake of the death of coach Mark Fox’s father, the Bulldogs re-defined themselves in that game as a team that excelled on the basis of effort, defense and rebounding. The same formula secured them impressive home wins over Alabama and Arkansas. After a decisive 97-76 win over South Carolina on Jan. 22, Georgia at 4-1 in the league officially was the surprise team of the SEC.

What’s gone wrong?

Much of the shine of that sparkling start has been tarnished a pair of ugly losses this past week. The Bulldogs’ rapidly-deteriorating offensive capabilities hit rock bottom in a 59-54 loss to the Commodores last week. UGA shot 27 percent from the floor and 17 percent from 3-point range in that game. Georgia followed that up with a road loss at Auburn, which has won only two of its last 17 conference games.

Injuries had some to do with the recent failings. Sophomore shooting guard Kenny Gaines missed the Kentucky and Vanderbilt games with a severely bruised thigh. Making matters worse, the Bulldogs also lost freshman Juwan Parker, Gaines’ backup, to a hamstring injury at the same time.

Whatever the cause, the Bulldogs simply don’t score well enough to compete with the league’s elite teams. Georgia has no consistent inside threat, as illustrated by the up-and-down play of forward Nemi Djurisic. The junior forward scored 16 and 22 in wins over Missouri and South Carolina but a combined total of 17 in losses to Florida, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

Players on the rise

Point guard Charles Mann has limitless potential and, when he’s on, gives Georgia’s opponents a match-up nightmare. He has to rectify his turnover and free-throw issues and become a more consistent jump shooter. But his ability to drive and dish or score have him pointed toward stardom.

Forward Brandon Morris seems to be finding a groove of late. He scored 40 points in the three games before running into foul trouble at Auburn. The 6-foot-7 athlete is versatile enough to play inside or on the perimeter and even fills minutes at point guard.

Junior forward Marcus Thornton is healthy now and has established himself not only as one of the league’s better post defenders and rebounders, but also a moderately effective offensive player.

Players who are disappointing

The Bulldogs were hopeful that Cameron Forte, a junior college transfer from Tempe, Ariz., might provide some of the scoring punch they lost with the NBA departure of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The 6-7 forward has shown potential in spurts, scoring 10 on 5-of-5 shooting against Davidson and 14 on a 7-of-7 night against George Washington. But he’s a significant liability on defense and seen his minutes plummet in SEC play as a result.

Parker, a 6-4 freshman from Tulsa, has showed some promise. He had a team-high 13 against Florida and is asserting himself as a defender and rebounder. But he has regressed as a shooter. He went 0-for-10 from the field and 0-for-5 from 3-point range in the loss to Vanderbilt, which dropped him below 20 percent in SEC play on both counts.

What has to happen to make postseason?

The Bulldogs have to get extremely busy building some sort of winning streak to have any hope of earning an NIT bid. All the good favor of defeating Missouri on the road was counteracted by losing to Vanderbilt at home and Auburn on the road.

There’s good news and bad news when it comes to the remainder of the schedule. Of the 10 games, half are at home and none would appear to fall into the category of un-winnable. Ole Miss (15-6, 6-2) is currently the highest-placed in the conference in a second-place tie with Kentucky and the Bulldogs get them in Athens on Feb. 15. Georgia still has LSU (14-6, 5-3) and Mississippi State (13-4, 3-4) home and away and has toughies on the road at Arkansas (13-8, 2-6) and Tennessee (14-7, 5-3).

As always, Georgia needs a clean slate the rest of the way at Stegeman Coliseum, needs to steal a couple of Ws on the road and make at least a little noise in the SEC Tournament, which will be played March 12 in Atlanta.