Yes, these are heady days for SEC basketball. And maybe we should’ve seen it coming.
The RPI doesn’t lie, at least most of the time. The SEC had 10 of the top 100 teams this past season, and five of the top 50 — with Georgia at 52 — and all that should have been an indicator for people that downgrading SEC basketball was an outdated notion.
Yes, this particular run is surprising. But the fact that the SEC isn’t bad in basketball should not be. South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky benefitted from playing in an improved league over the past three months, and it helped them in March. It almost helped Arkansas and Vanderbilt too.
But let’s not make this an SEC-centric opus. Let’s turn it to the subject on the minds of those reading this particular site: What does that mean about Georgia?
Yes, it validates that as essentially the sixth best team in the league, based on RPI and the NCAA/NIT pecking order, that’s nothing to sneeze about. When fans write me speaking about the “atrocious” state of the program, they’re massively overstating things and hurting their own argument. Not good enough? Mediocre? OK. But 9-9 in this year’s SEC, with six of those losses (plus one more in the SEC Tournament) to three Elite Eight teams, with many of those losses being achingly close … that’s not bad.
None of that, however, changes the fact that Georgia still only has itself to blame for not making the NCAA Tournament. Had it closed out just a couple of those games, or maybe the Texas A&M game plus one of those other close games against the top teams, it would’ve been in.
Looming larger, though, may be what happened prior to SEC play: Georgia failed to get it done during nonconference play. A home loss to Marquette. Road losses to Clemson and Oakland. There wasn’t enough there to make what Georgia did in SEC play worthy of an NCAA bid.
This of course has led to much consternation over Mark Fox returning for his ninth season at Georgia. Here’s how athletics director Greg McGarity, speaking on the day of what turned out to be the NIT loss to Belmont, summed things up during an interview on the Bulldog Roundtable:
“Consecutive winning seasons (in) basketball at Georgia haven’t really been in common in the past. It ebbs and flows. We’ve been up and down, like an elevator. And so what Mark has done has provide that stability in a winning program. Now Mark would be the first person to tell you it’s not the level that he wants it to be, and that everyone wants it to be. But it is a winning record, and it’s something to where it’s become commonplace now in our program. We’ve just got to take that step forward in getting to the dance.”
So what are the chances of that?
The SEC is clearly getting better. That’s a double-edged sword. Maybe the respect factor will help a Georgia team on the bubble next year. But a better league also could make it harder for Georgia to get on the bubble.
Georgia also can be good next year, whether or not Yante Maten returns. But we are on record here saying that there are some changes Fox needs to make. Figuring out a way to do better in November and December is priority No. 1.
I covered South Carolina basketball for four years, from 2006-10. Watching this run is as surreal as watching George Mason, after I left that beat, reach the Final Four. Those are programs you don’t think capable of such runs.
So why not Georgia? If South Carolina can do it, certainly Georgia can. But this was also South Carolina’s first NCAA trip in 13 years, so there might be a certain lightning-in-a-bottle factor. When Frank Martin was available was five years ago, South Carolina essentially got lucky. Martin desperately wanted to leave Kansas State, and South Carolina happened to have an opening.
Georgia can’t expect to get that lucky if and when it gets an opening at some point in the future.
South Carolina, I also can say from having covered it for four years and lived there, does have some advantages over Georgia. The arena is better, for one. The fan base for home games is better, because Columbia is located in a big population center, unlike Athens. George’s recruiting base should be better, but recruiting isn’t that easy.
Not that it was at South Carolina, either. Make no mistake, what Martin has accomplished is fantastic.
There are number of ways to look at all of this. For Georgia fans, it should be some validation for what its team has been able to do the last few years in an SEC that we now can see has improved.
It also should mean some sense of urgency. The SEC is getting better, and it won’t get worse. Georgia and Mark Fox needs to get better along with it — or risk being left far behind.