ST. LOUIS — Mark Fox had an incredulous look on his face. He had just left a postgame news conference, gotten a slap on the back from Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity, then walked into a hallway and looked around. He threw both hands up in the air in exasperation.
In reality, Fox didn’t know the way to his team’s locker room. But given events of the evening, and this season, Georgia’s coach could also have been saying: Where was this all season?
Georgia had just played perhaps its best game of the season, pummeling Vanderbilt 78-62 to keep its season alive at least one more day. But if Fox’s team had been able to play like this in three or four more games in the regular season, it would be on the way to an NCAA Tournament bid and the coach’s job wouldn’t be in jeopardy.
That’s what has been so confounding about this Georgia team. It has the AP SEC Player of the Year, senior Yante Maten, and on some nights it has looked like a genuine SEC contender: A double-digit win against Tennessee, both wins over Florida and this rout of Vanderbilt.
But those wins have been spaced around games, or even halves of games, when Maten received little help and the Bulldogs lost. The regular-season game against Vanderbilt, for example. How does a team look so bad in one game and so good against the same team exactly a month later?
“The game of basketball gets a lot easier when everyone makes shots,” Maten said Wednesday night, when he had a superb game (25 points) but was joined by plenty of teammates. “Because [the opponent] isn’t sure who to lock in on. The freshmen did a really great job coming in playing their role in the offense. And our defense as well. Everyone was locked in, so that helped me out tremendously.”
There is talent on this team. It just can’t be depended on to jell every game, which is why there’s no reason to expect the performance Wednesday night will translate over to the stiffer test against Missouri on Thursday afternoon.
Rayshaun Hammonds was a top-50 prospect when he signed with Georgia, but as a freshman he has been wildly inconsistent, disappearing at times. He made one of his appearances on Wednesday, notching 10 points and 8 rebounds while looking confident around the hoop.
Nicolas Claxton, another freshman forward, is an intriguing blend of size (6-foot-11) and athleticism. He showed it several times Wednesday, grabbing rebounds, dunking the ball and swatting away shots.
Teshaun Hightower, a freshman point guard, has at times looked like the answer to the team’s point guard problems, such as his 6-assist, 13-point performance against Vanderbilt. At other times he has looked every bit like a freshman, such as when he fumbled the ball in the critical, bungled final possession against Texas A&M last week.
The rap on Fox has been a reluctance to play freshmen, but this season Hammonds, Claxton and Hightower have all started some games and often played significant minutes. To hear their coach tell it, they’ve been part of the problem. But when the team plays as well as it did Wednesday, they’re a big part of the solution.
“They’re very talented young players, and we’ve played them a lot throughout the year, and they’ve made some real costly errors throughout the season, which has allowed them to grow because of the way they’ve responded to it,” Fox said. “So I think because they’ve responded to mistakes, and developed confidence from plays they’ve completed, they’re playing a little bit more maturely than they did even two weeks ago, but certainly a month ago.”
At one point Wednesday night, one could look at the court and see Georgia’s front line — Maten, Hammonds and junior Derek Ogbeide, with Claxton coming off the bench — and realize this really could have been a good team. That is a formidable front line, one that just needed consistent outside scoring.
It didn’t need it against Vanderbilt. It probably will against Missouri. But can you depend on it?
Will junior point guard Turtle Jackson play well? Will sophomore shooting guard Tyree Crump hit shots and not commit turnovers? How effective can senior guard Juwan Parker be from the outside?
These are all unknowns. And there are nights you can’t even depend on the non-Maten post players, either. Which is why Fox wasn’t smiling much Wednesday night. It was just one game.
Yes, a very good one. But there could have been more of them.