ATHENS, Ga. - Six weeks ago, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone calling Georgia an above-.500 basketball team, let alone the third-best squad in the Southeastern Conference.
But we're now in the middle of February and that's exactly where the Bulldogs (14-10, 8-4 SEC) stand after their thrilling, last-second 61-60 home win over Ole Miss on Saturday. Paced by sophomore shooting guard Kenny Gaines, who scored 19 of his 21 points and blocked Marshall Henderson twice in the second half alone, UGA stormed back and ultimately held on for the victory in a back-and-forth battle that saw seven lead changes and each team lead by as many as 11 points.
Draw whatever conclusions you will about the overall quality of basketball in the SEC compared to the other major conferences; the fact remains that Georgia, even after losing a lottery pick in SEC Player of the Year Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, has proven itself much improved over last season.
"Yeah, this year I feel like I'm noticing more all-around effort," Gaines said. "We have to depend on each other instead of having to depend on Kentavious [Caldwell-Pope] more. That kind of forces us to play for each other and play hard."
And in what many would consider a do-or-die year for head coach Mark Fox, the timing couldn't be better.
"I think we can still get better, I really do," Fox said. "We have growth left in us. This is a team, because we only have one senior, I thought we continued to improve throughout the year."
For nearly the entire stretch of conference play, the Bulldogs have relied upon a distinctly blue-collar style of basketball marked by sound defense, winning the rebounding battle and getting to the foul line. Quietly leading the way: forwards Donte Williams and (a finally healthy) Marcus Thornton, both of whom have made a living on the boards and in the paint this season.
"I think it's often overlooked that Donte and Marcus' success at the defensive end goes unnoticed. Even covering up mistakes in the guys' rotation that saves a basket that doesn't ever show up in statistics. I think that their play inside is a strong correlation to any success that we have," Fox said.
However, Georgia has undoubtedly lacked the ability to shoot and score with consistency. At one point, the team collectively shot below 35 percent five times in a six-game stretch. Nemanja Djurisic, normally an offensive asset, has suffered through a bit of a cold streak over the past month. Gaines has scored only sporadically. And the team as a whole seems to develop an aversion to points during any road game.
"I feel like we haven't played our best basketball offensively. We still have some kinks in our game we got to try and figure out," Gaines said.
The losses to Vanderbilt and Auburn serve as perfect examples, both being characterized by notably poor shot selection and hesitation in the paint. But when the offense does click, as it did against Mississippi State and LSU earlier this month, or when Gaines finds his stroke, the team looks like a legitimate leader in the SEC. Of course, with Florida and Kentucky playing in a league of their own, "leader" does sound pretty subjective.
Still, it begs the question: where does this team end up? A berth in the NCAA Tournament would seem pretty far-fetched for a team ranked 90th in the RPI. The NIT remains much more likely, especially if the team can turn in a solid performance at the SEC Tournament.
But with six games left on the regular season schedule, the Bulldogs aren't quite ready to give up the old "one game at a time" mantra quite yet.
"Everybody's happy right now, but everybody knows we still got a lot of games to play," senior forward Donte Williams said. "The tournament, it's like three weeks away."
The next two games - at Tennessee and at South Carolina - should reveal more about the mental makeup of a team now coming off a string of emotional games, and one that has struggled on the road. The Volunteers in particular should pose a real threat, with guard Jordan McRae averaging 19.6 points per game and forward Jarnell Stokes averaging a double-double. They also comprise perhaps the best group of rebounders in the conference.
It's no stretch of the imagination to think UGA could struggle to keep pace. Of course, if Gaines can guard McRae as he did Henderson and keep his shooting hand hot, this surprising, young bunch of Bulldogs could certainly keep rolling through the SEC.
"Tennessee has a terrific front line. They're a great rebounding team, they've got great perimeter scoring," Fox said. "And we're playing at their place. Obviously a big challenge to do that. We're going to have to be very complete."