ATHENS — Mark Fox sat alone in Georgia’s locker room on Saturday afternoon, his Georgia players having packed up and headed for the bus, and once again lobbied for his team’s longshot NCAA bid: The non-conference schedule he had put together, with the advice and consent of the SEC office, should carry the day, Fox maintained.
By Sunday night, when his team had officially been forced to settle for an NIT bid, Fox’s tone was a mix of acceptance and exasperation. Georgia had finished with 19 wins, and the nation’s fourth-hardest non-conference schedule according to the RPI. But not beating enough of those good teams, and having a team RPI of 64, proved the difference.
“We needed more wins,” Fox said. “I don’t think strength of schedule was probably valued like we had hoped. That’s something that we’ll probably have to take a hard look at. You really have to take a look at the last couple teams in and take a hard comparison and see what the committee thought was most important.”
Georgia (19-13) will have a chance to extend its season in the NIT, where it begins play Wednesday by hosting Belmont. They may have to do it without leading scorer J.J. Frazier. But it will surely look back on the near-misses that cost it the goal of returning to the NCAA tournament.
There were two-point losses to Chattanooga and Kansas State in the first six games, when eventual starting center Derek Ogbeide was out. (He played a perfunctory two minutes against Kansas State.) There was the one-point loss at Ole Miss, when Georgia led by four in the final minute, only to have Stefan Moody win the game on a lay-up after many Bulldogs believed Moody traveled. There was a four-point loss at LSU, when Georgia had the ball down two in the final minute but couldn’t get a good shot off. And of course there was the three-point loss at woeful Auburn, when an awful first half doomed the Bulldogs.
But that game finally spurred a late-season charge by the Bulldogs, who won five straight, then led Kentucky most of the way but couldn’t finish it off.
“We felt like we could have won the game against Kentucky, and we did not,” Fox said. “But I don’t think anything surprised us. We felt like we were playing well, and we could play well in Nashville, and we were just unable to beat the Wildcats.”
Fox said the team watched the NCAA selection show together and was “as you would anticipate, disappointed.” Most analysts had Georgia off the radar screen, and the third seed delivered by the NIT committee – which tends to follow the NCAA selection committee’s criteria – would back that up.
But Fox was hopeful that the non-conference schedule he put together would carry weight. He delivered cupcakes to Dick Vitale before Saturday’s game as a way of sending a message about his team not scheduling bad teams.
After being left off by the NCAA committee, Fox indicated he wanted the SEC to discuss whether the scheduling strategy was wise.
“Obviously it’s something that was directed by the conference. And it’s something that today didn’t bear as much fruit as we had hoped,” Fox said. “I think that everyone is involved is going to have to take a hard look at every angle, and see how effective that is. Is it something that we value too much or something that the committee doesn’t value enough, or is not gonna value. But I think we have to take a real hard examination of it and then move forward accordingly.”
It potentially gives younger players a bit more seasoning. Freshman guard Turtle Jackson, for instance, finally saw his first extended action in the SEC semifinal and scored nine points. But Fox said they won’t talk about using the NIT as a springboard to next year.
“We’re not going to worry about next year’s team until our season ends,” Fox said. “I think our focus is on this year’s team, and this year’s team is still trying to win more games and accomplish something. We won’t even begin to talk about next year’s team, publicly or within our group, until this season ends.”
Finally, the NIT is a chance for the team’s two lone seniors, guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines, to extend their college careers.
After Saturday’s loss to Kentucky, Mann was asked if the team would be able to get up for an NIT bid.
“Anytime you get a chance to play basketball you just enjoy it,” Mann said. “It’s an opportunity that’s not given, it can be taken away at any moment.”
If Georgia wins it could end up traveling to the West Coast for its second round game. The winner of Georgia-Belmont faces the winner of the game between second-seeded St. Mary’s (Calif.) and seventh-seeded New Mexico State.
Belmont (20-11) won an automatic bid to the NIT after finish first in the Ohio Valley during the regular season but falling in the conference tournament. The Bruins are ranked No. 95 in the RPI, with its lone top 100 coming at home over Valparaiso, a bubble team left out of the NCAAs. Belmont played just one power conference team this season, falling 83-74 at Arizona State in November.