ATHENS -- The SEC’s reign as the national college football champ has ended. Its status as perhaps the weakest major basketball conference continues.
And that’s why Georgia, as bleak as its start has been, can cling to a morsel of hope.
A very small morsel.
Last year the Bulldogs endured a rough non-conference season, going 6-7. Then they surged in SEC play, at least relatively speaking, and went 9-9.
This year the Bulldogs went 6-6 in non-conference play. And once again the SEC is down, with only three teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI and six ranked 200 or lower. Georgia is one of those, at 262, ahead of only Mississippi State.
The difference between this year and last year is a simple, and it’s not positive one: Georgia doesn’t have Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who went on to be the SEC player of the year and left the program for the NBA.
What Georgia head coach Mark Fox does have is a team still struggling to find itself. The red flag in non-conference play for Georgia is it didn’t seem to get much better, suffering its largest loss (in terms of points) in its most recent game, by 18 at George Washington. It was a road loss to a quality team (George Washington is getting top 25 votes), but Fox’s team still struggled in almost every facet.
By contrast, last year Georgia entered conference play on a four-game winning streak, including wins over George Washington and Southern California.
Fox made a statement this week that spoke to the urgency that his team must improve.
“It starts as unromantic as it sounds; we’ve got to dig in the trenches and get stops and rebounds. That’s where we can make major improvement. That’s the area you can fix the fastest,” Fox said. “It’s really hard to fix your program offensively, because you need recruiting, you need time for guys to learn your system, all those types of things. It’s a quicker fix defensively. We need to make some progress there.”
This has been a rough week for Fox, whose father passed away during the weekend. He flew ahead of the team Tuesday to attend the funeral, then will join the team Wednesday for its 8 p.m. tipoff at Missouri.
No. 21 Missouri (12-1) is one of the SEC’s three best teams and boasts the second-leading scorer in the conference, guard Jordan Clarkson.
Then after hosting Alabama (5-7) on Saturday, Georgia has to visit Florida (11-2), one of the best teams in the conference.
It’s not the open to the schedule that a young Georgia team needed. Fox pointed out that the SEC office hasn’t done Georgia any favors in terms of conference openers, opening four times in Fox’s five years against a top-25 team.
“I’m surprised we’re not playing at Rupp (Arena) twice to start the league,” Fox said.
Eventually it does get easier. After the Florida game, five out of Georgia’s next seven games will be at home. Still, the performance the first 12 games doesn’t offer too much hope. The Bulldogs are scoring nearly 12 more points per game than they did last year, but they’re also giving up nearly 10 more points per game.
The bright spot has been field goal percentage, in which Georgia ranks 44th nationally, at 48.1 percent. The Bulldogs also lead the SEC in free-throw percentage at 76 percent.
But in Georgia’s six losses, it has been outrebounded by an average margin of 4.5. The problem has been on both ends, allowing opponents too many second chances and the Bulldogs not getting their own.
The Bulldogs also rank 12th in scoring defense, yielding 69.6 points per game. They’re not getting enough steals (4.8 per game, second-worst in the SEC), and that, like a lot of things, can go back to not filling Caldwell-Pope’s shoes.
“We just don’t defend and rebound consistently,” Fox said. “I really felt like in all the talk in the offseason with replacing Kentavious’ scoring, we knew as a staff that this guy was also our leading rebounder, and that might be something that might take a little time to replace. But I would have thought we would have made more progress in those two areas. I’m a little disappointed in that.”