ATHENS – Mark Fox has a favorite saying when asked about the idea of must-wins, and apparently he’s said it enough that his Georgia basketball players are repeating it.
“We feel like it’s not a must-win. A must-win is against cancer,” senior guard Charles Mann said Monday, when asked about Tuesday’s trip to LSU. “We’ll see how it goes, one day at a time.”
The sentiment is undoubtedly accurate, and the basketball part of it is true yet: Georgia’s NCAA tournament hopes do not rest on this one game, nor Saturday’s game at Baylor, or next week’s game against South Carolina.
But this much also seems true: Georgia needs at least one of those games, if not two of them, to get out from where it stands right now: On the wrong side of the bubble.
No current projections – among ESPN, CBSsports and USA Today – have Georgia in the 68-team field or even among the first four out. In order for that to change, either the field will have to seriously regress, or the Bulldogs will have to get an attention-getting win. And probably more than one.
The opportunities will be there. Every team left on Georgia’s regular season schedule is in the top 100 of the RPI. And Georgia, which lacks any wins against top 50 teams, gets five cracks at teams currently in there: Baylor (26), South Carolina (28) twice, Florida (22) and Kentucky (16).
In fact, LSU is the worst-ranked team (92) left on the schedule. But it also has the best player.
Ben Simmons is widely projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NBA draft. The freshman forward from Australia, who is 6-foot-10, is extraordinarily talented and has a wide range of abilities. He leads the Tigers in practically every stat: Points (19.6 points per game), rebounds (12.6), assists (5.1) and steals (1.8).
“He’s not a one-man army,” Fox said, before adding: “He very well could be. He’s so talented. … He’s a very unique player. I don’t know if it’s a once in a couple-generation player, but he reminds me of early in my career when we played Jason Kidd and he just impacted the game in so many different ways. And that’s what Ben Simmons does.”
Making things harder for Fox and the Bulldogs is the sign that the Tigers, after some early-season problems, are figuring things out. They are 5-2 since SEC play began, and coming off a win at Alabama on Saturday.
Georgia (11-6 overall, 4-3 in the SEC) righted itself last week with two home wins, but neither did much on paper for its NCAA resume’. Much remains to be done. It ranks 61st in the current RPI ratings, according to CBSsports.com. Its best victory is over Georgia Tech (68) and Clemson (97).
“It’s really important for us to protect our home and then go on the road and get some wins there as well, because that helps us as a team,” Georgia sophomore forward Yante Maten said. “It helps our morale, the confidence in ourselves. Because if we can protect our home and get those away wins it helps our momentum.”