ATHENS — There were the perfunctory comments about being disappointed about not getting the bid to the big tournament, but privleged to still be able to play in the lesser one, and some talk about the actual opponent.
But for Georgia, as it always is with bubble teams that miss the NCAA Tournament, the central topic was this: What went wrong, and how can it be fixed?
Head coach Mark Fox acknowledged that the lack of a signature win — against an RPI top 25 team — was costly. In fact, he also acknowledged, the Bulldogs may have needed a couple, based on only being a No. 2 seed in the NIT.
“Obviously the top 25, top 50 wins is an area of this team, we didn’t get that box checked,” said Fox, whose team will play Belmont on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. ET in Stegeman Coliseum.
This will go down as the Georgia season of near-misses, so many close losses in SEC play. But it’s also possible that Georgia’s doom was sealed before that, when it failed to get a cushion during nonconference play, losing winnable games to Marquette, Clemson and Oakland, as well as Kansas.
It’s been a staple of Georgia’s teams recently, getting off to slow starts. So in the offseason is there going to be any self-evaluation to see what it can do to be better in November and December?
“What we’re trying to do is put together the schedule that meets those boxes. When you schedule up, you’re going to have your share of losses,” Fox said. “Obviously this year we lost to Kansas. And we lost a home game to Marquette. But we still ended up I think with nine nonconference wins (actually 10). We’ll re-evaluate everything obviously, in trying to clean up the areas that I think are costing us.”
Fox does deserve credit for Georgia’s scheduling philosophy, and it probably helped his teams get bids in 2011 and 2015. But it hasn’t helped three of the past four years, when it was relegated to the NIT. This year Georgia was ranked 21st nationally in nonconference schedule strength.
And that’s a source of frustration.
“I think every team is probably ahead of another team in a certain area. It’s just a moving target,” Fox said. “Is strength of schedule, top 50 wins? Top 50 wins was an area that we were deficient this year. Road record. Nonconference strength of schedule. RPI, KPI. There’s so many different things now that they look at that they could probably pick one to create any pecking order that they want. And we obviously didn’t fall where we wanted to.”
Georgia (19-14 overall) was ranked 52 in the RPI on Sunday, with an overall schedule strength of 14.
But the Bulldogs only beat one team — Vanderbilt — ranked in the RPI top 50. They were 1-9 against such teams.
Fox said a “frustration” of all coaches, including himself, was a lack of direction and feedback from the committee on what the biggest criteria is.
“There’s no communication with the committee ever. That’s a frustration from all coaches,” Fox said. “All bubble teams have a wart somewhere. But you don’t get specific communication back saying this is what you needed.”
Georgia has consistently had a good schedule strength, through strategic nonconference scheduling. That includes not only playing top-level teams like Kansas, and other power-conference teams, but mid-major teams expected to do well in their conference.
Even if Fox wanted to change that, he probably wouldn’t be able to. The SEC office for the past few years has held veto power over team’s schedules, in an effort to make them schedule well.
That does appear to have paid off for the SEC as a whole, which got five NCAA teams this year, after only three last year. But Georgia was one of the few programs that was scheduling up for years, and this year he saw other programs (Kansas State for one) get in despite much weaker nonconference scheduling.
“Does it bear the fruit that we want it to bear? I think we have to look at that,” Fox said. “If indeed the seeing is what it is and there’s teams ahead of us that played schedules that are far weaker, then we have to evaluate (if) that’s the right thing to do, to schedule as we’re scheduling. Again, it is frustrating exactly what it is they want. So you’re trying to check all these arbitrary boxes, and you just hope that you check the right ones.”
Some things also can’t get helped, such as the SEC schedule. This year, Georgia was the only team to twice in the regular season play each of the top three teams (Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina.)
But that gets back to actually winning the games.
“That impacts your strength of schedule (to play those teams),” Fox said. “But that number may not be as important as we all think it is.”
The game against Belmont is a rematch of last year’s first-round NIT game, when Georgia won 93-84. Yante Maten had a career-high 33 points in that game.
This year, Belmont (21-6) comes in with an RPI rank of 60, just eight spots below Georgia’s. The teams had two mutual opponents: Florida (Georgia was swept and Belmont lost on a neutral court by 17) and Vanderbilt (Georgia won in Athens and Belmont lost in Nashville by 14.)
So how does a team that was hoping for bigger things get up for another game at Stegeman, and against a non-marquee opponent? Fox emphasized the importance of taking every opportunity to play.
“At some point in their life, someone’s going to tell them that they’re not good enough to play anymore, or their body is going to tell them that they’re too old to play, and so when you have the opportunity to play when you’re young, you should take full advantage,” Fox said. “You have a chance to continue your season. And hopefully they’ll be excited to play.”