NASHVILLE, Tenn. – There were still more than 10 minutes left in Georgia’s allotted practice time on Wednesday when head coach Mark Fox signaled for a half-court shooting contest. That’s how the Bulldogs finish most road practices, and they had already held a full-fledged practice earlier in the day. So it wasn’t any sign of overconfidence or being loose.
Judging by the past two weeks, relaxed and loose isn’t what works for this team.
Two weeks ago Georgia hit the low point of its season, falling behind by 18 at woeful Auburn, a team it expected to beat easily. Since then — after a frantic rally that fell short in that game — the Bulldogs have run off three straight wins, all over teams with winning records.
On Thursday night, Georgia finds out whether it truly learned its lesson two weeks ago.
Something changed for Georgia at halftime of that Auburn game, players admit. Now the question is whether they can keep that desperation and that edge on Thursday against Mississippi State (14-16).
“Coach Fox hates when we use the word desperate. But I feel like this is how we’ve been playing, is a desperate team, trying to fight to where we want to go,” senior guard Kenny Gaines said. “Ever since that second half at Auburn we’ve played with a different chip on our shoulder, we’ve played with a little bit more confidence.”
J.J. Frazier, the team’s sharp-shooting junior guard, put it more succinctly.
“There’s no risk in losing (that edge), because we’re not where we want to be,” he said.
That would be the NCAA tournament, which Georgia probably will be left out of unless it wins four in a row this weekend. Getting to the championship game would get the Bulldogs in the conversation.
But could the Bulldogs also go one-and-done, and be on the NIT bubble? That’s a danger, despite — or perhaps because of — a draw that initially looks favorable.
Georgia (17-12) won at Mississippi State (14-16) on Feb. 13, leading by 22 at one point. Win that game, and Georgia would get South Carolina (23-9), a team it swept and beat on the road last week.
Does that set up the possibility of a mental trap for Georgia? Fox said he wasn’t worried about it. He talked up Mississippi State as a team “playing as well as anybody in our league, having won four of its past six.
“I think our guys understand the importance of how they need to get ready to play,” Fox said. “They’ve learned some things through the year that when they’re not in the right place mentally they don’t play well. I would hope that’s the approach they have.”
That win over Mississippi State was Georgia’s only win during a 1-4 stretch that started with a 34-point humiliation at Kentucky and ended with the loss at Auburn.
Sophomore forward Yante Maten said the team has been “a lot closer” the past couple weeks, talking to each other more about what it has to do. Not any one person has been more vocal, the team collectively has just “taken ownership of how bad we were playing.”
“Admit and own up, acknowledge how we were playing wasn’t good enough,” Maten said. “Accepting the mistakes, seeing it, realizing it and getting better and improving from it.”
What has the team improved on the most lately? Answers varied. Gaines first mentioned defense, while Frazier’s one-word answer was “aggression.” Fox said his team was more “consistently determined” now.
The trick on Thursday night will be not reverting to what happened at Auburn. It’s a similar set-up, a rematch against a team Georgia already beat, and will be favored to win again. This, ultimately, will be a test of what the Bulldogs learned from that Auburn debacle.
“You’ve gotta learn from everything you do, and we learned that we can’t play lackadaisical and beat teams,” Frazier said. “That half, from that point on we’ve been playing hard and aggressive and it’s been working out for us.”