ATHENS -- Even after a shellacking Saturday, the Georgia basketball team began this week in a pretty good spot: alone in fourth place in the 14-team SEC with its toughest games already behind it.
The conference season is now one-third over. Whether the Bulldogs can finish in the top half of the standings will depend heavily on how they do during the next five games. In essence, it’s an opportunity to pad their record.
Or it could cancel out the surprising gains of the past month.
Georgia has arrived at the cushy middle of its SEC schedule. Three of the next five games are at home, with the exceptions being Auburn, perhaps the worst team in the conference, and Mississippi State, which is also struggling.
“Of course the formula is to win all of your home games and half of your away games,” guard Charles Mann said.
So far Georgia is basically doing that in SEC play.
Georgia just finished an opening stretch in which it played the SEC’s two top teams (as judged by the RPI) and five of the top nine. So to come out with a 4-2 record is pretty surprising, considering where Georgia was after non-conference play.
The upcoming stretch of five games will see Georgia play three of the SEC’s five worst-ranked teams (Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn) and the sixth-best ranked team (LSU).
The schedule after that isn’t exactly difficult -- no Kentucky or Florida. But on paper, the next five games make up the easiest stretch of the schedule, and it will be time to either pad the record or add more pressure for the final stretch.
It begins Wednesday against Vanderbilt, which has the same overall record as Georgia but is 2-4 in the conference. There’s another statistic that favors Georgia: While Vanderbilt is 1-4 on the road, Georgia is 9-1 at Stegeman Coliseum.
Head coach Mark Fox suggested that that’s due to an increased effort to practice at Stegeman.
“We tried to get in there and shoot the ball more in the offseason when we could. We tried to practice in there more, just so we could be more comfortable at home,” Fox said.
“I just know that when you go back and watch their league games, they’ve just had impressive performances, impressive wins,” Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stalling said. “Their guys are playing real hard. They’re playing together. They really look like they’ve bought into their coaches and to each other.”
So what does Georgia need to do to continue playing well?
Focus on defense and rebounding. Yes, it’s repetitive to keep mentioning these two factors, but they are the main reasons Georgia is a better team now. Even in a losing effort at Kentucky, the Bulldogs held their own on the glass.
“I think that’s just what we have to have pride on in order to be successful,” Thornton said.
Get Kenny Gaines back. The sophomore shooting guard, who bruised his thigh last week, is uncertain for Wednesday’s game after missing the game at Kentucky. Backup shooting guard Juwan Parker, a freshman, is also uncertain with a hamstring injury. But Gaines is one of the team’s best scoring threats, and it would be hard to win without him.
Fox said both Gaines and Parker had yet to be cleared to practice as of Tuesday afternoon.
“Neither one of them are where I want them to be at the moment,” Fox said.
Start hitting free throws. During SEC play, Georgia leads the conference in free throw attempts, and it’s not even close. The Bulldogs have attempted 31 shots more than the next team. But the Bulldogs only rank 12th in the SEC in free-throw percentage during conference play.
Mann, in particular, has been glaring, as he gets to the line more than anyone on the team, due to his propensity to drive. He has seen his percentage go down about 15 points since SEC play began.
Mann said he and an assistant coach worked hard on his shooting the past couple of days and pinpointed what he has been doing wrong.
“I’ve just gotta keep believing in myself,” Mann said. “I’ve been a good free-throw shooter all my life, it’s just I haven’t been making them, and it’s been bringing me down. I can’t let that get to me. I’ve just gotta keep on playing.”