NASHVILLE – This time, John Calipari didn’t give a campaign speech for Georgia, he just said a couple sentences and moved on. When it was Mark Fox’s turn to lobby, he pointed more to data. It was almost half-hearted.
Maybe if Georgia had played better on Friday, if it had passed the eye test, Fox would have lobbied harder. But after his team struggled its way through a 71-60 quarterfinal loss to Kentucky, Fox seemed to know it wasn’t the right time to be confident about his team’s NCAA tournament chances.
“Unfortunately, you know, most of the talking heads don’t talk about us because historically maybe we haven’t been on the tip of their tongue,” Fox said. “If you really look at the metrics, which is what — they tell us to schedule up and they demand that we schedule up, but they’re going to fine us if we don’t schedule. If you rack up a bunch of top 100 wins and road wins and everything else they say is important, then I think we deserve an honest look, but you don’t know. At the end of the day, you have no idea what this year’s combination of committee members is going to deem is most important.”
The national bracket experts say Georgia (19-14) will be left out of the 68-team field when it’s announced on Sunday night. Fox, who clearly follows the process closely, pointed to all the factors in his team’s favor:
Schedule strength, which ranks in the national top 20. Road wins (five, plus two more on neutral sites). He also cited that, entering Friday at least, Georgia’s rank in the RPI and KPI metrics would put it among the 36 at-large teams.
But Fox also knows the main knock against his team: The inability to beat very good teams. Georgia was 1-9 against teams in the RPI top 50, and winless against the top 25.
“Two years ago we were in the tournament and didn’t have a top 50 win,” Fox said. “I think we’ve checked every other box and — but you just don’t know what’s most important to the committee.”
Calipari, as he typically does for every other SEC team with a conceivable NCAA bid, lobbied for Georgia, though succinctly.
“Mark did an unbelievable job all year. With (Yante) Maten out, they still won. He comes back and they play here, and they deserve to be in the NCAA tournament, I believe that,” Calipari said. “Everybody thought well, they got to beat us. Why in our league is that the way it is? I mean, they deserve to be in, but obviously I’m not in the room.”
Barring a curveball from the people in that room, Georgia will be headed to the NIT for the third time in four years. It will be a sure disappointment for a team that began the season with the NCAA being the main goal.
Would the team be able to get up for the NIT? Players were surveyed in the locker room:
Maten: “We’re basketball players. We love to play basketball anywhere.”
J.J. Frazier: “Regardless of where we play, this team is going to be ready to play. So you’re asking the wrong guy that. Because I’m going to have my team ready regardless of where we play.”
Juwan Parker: “We’re a bunch of competitors, man. If you’ve got a chance to toss the ball on the court and go play, you’re going to go play. Of course we’re hoping for the NCAA, but if it’s the NIT we’re going to go play our heart out.”
Derek Ogbeide: “The NIT, of course, it has its own perks and whatnot. But it’s not really what we’re expecting to and hoping to go for. We had high aspirations for ourselves, and definitely want the best.”
There’s also a sense around the team that, if it doesn’t get the desired bid, it ultimately only has itself to blame.
Yes, Fox brought up the Texas A&M loss and clock fiasco on Friday. But that win alone may not have changed things, as the Aggies are barely in the RPI top 100.
No, it was all those close losses to better teams: Three times Georgia had two-point leads in the final minute against Kentucky and Florida, and both South Carolina games were close too. The inability to close out games will probably be the epitaph for this season.
“We had our opportunities this year, and it’s unfortunate it had to come down to this kind of wire, the position that we’re in. The position that we put ourselves in,” Ogbeide said. “And as we just try to get accustomed to it, we have to live with the consequences.”