ATHENS – There are plenty of basketball reasons that this has been a disappointing season for Georgia. A limited number of scorers. A half-court offense that can be too deliberate.
But throughout the season there’s been another nagging problem: Fire. Or the lack of it.
A frustrated but stoic J.J. Frazier said over and over that his Georgia team needed to “look in the mirror,” and lacked the “determination and will to win.” Speaking two days later, teammate Charles Mann concurred.
“As you can see, we’re not the same team as last year,” Mann said. “We haven’t been playing with determination and hunger, and just playing the way we know to play. With these last few games, we just want to go out there and play with the way we know how to play, and lay it out there.”
Entering the season Georgia was picked to finish fifth in the SEC, and was considered by most experts to have a decent shot at a second straight NCAA tournament bid. Instead the Bulldogs (14-12 overall, 7-8 in the SEC) enter the final three games knowing they’re out of consideration, and just trying to salvage something. It starts with Saturday’s game against Ole Miss.
“It’s kinda too late in the season to say: Oh man we’re gonna play hard now,” Mann said. “We’ve just gotta get back to doing what we’re doing, and play one game at a time, don’t think about anything else. Don’t think about the SEC tournament, NCAA tournament, no postseason. Just winning the next game.”
So what’s the problem with the leadership? There’s no evidence of anybody not being a good leader. There just appears to be an absence of someone besides head coach Mark Fox to light a fire under the team.
Last year Georgia had Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic, both of whom were soft-spoken off the court butt would get in teammates’ faces during games and in the locker room. Thornton especially was known for his passion.
Fox was asked Friday if this team had that.
“Marcus and Nemi were as good a leaders as I’ve probably seen in a decade. They were terrific,” Fox said. “Everyone leads in different ways. We probably don’t have that kind of leader that Marcus was. That certainly was an advantage for last year’s team.”
The low point in Georgia’s season came Wednesday, when it fell at Auburn, one of the SEC’s two worst teams. The Bulldogs trailed by 18 in the first half, then whittled the lead to one in the final minute. It wasn’t enough.
There was an urgency and an energy level in the second half that had seemed missing at critical times this season, particularly the start of many games.
“I agree with you,” Mann said. “We haven’t been playing determined, and hungry and laying it all out. Including myself. I’m not pointing any fingers, it’s us as a team. So tomorrow we’re going to get ready to strap it up.”
This year’s team is under no illusions. Senior guard Kenny Gaines admitted the NCAAs are off the table, save for a miracle SEC tournament title. So what does the team have to play for until then?
“Just playing to be better,” he said. “It’s not too late for us to turn a switch and just be good.”