ATHENS, Ga. -- The most unexpected moment of Georgia’s season thus far was also its most inspirational. Head coach Mark Fox crying on the bench, his Bulldogs men’s basketball team having pulled off a road win over Missouri, just days after the death of his father.
That was seven weeks ago. The moment would have been long forgotten, or considered an isolated event, if not for what it has proved to be: a springboard for Georgia’s surprising SEC season.
As Missouri head coach Frank Haith put it Monday, “They got started here at our place.”
And now the Tigers will seek to return the favor, in a game vitally important for both teams, but for different reasons.
Missouri (19-8) is a team fighting for its NCAA life. The Tigers have the best RPI rank (45) of any SEC not named Florida or Kentucky. But they also own just one win over a top-50 RPI team, and they are coming off a loss at struggling Alabama. The Tigers can’t afford many more losses.
Georgia (15-11) doesn’t have much of a shot at an NCAA at-large bid. But it’s in much better position in the SEC standings. The Bulldogs are alone in third place with a 9-5 record, while incredibly seven teams -- including Missouri -- are tied for fourth at 7-7.
“It’s really remarkable, really,” Fox said.
Each team has four games remaining in the regular season. Georgia’s main hope right now is to finish in the top four, which would mean a double-bye into the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament. A win over Missouri would basically clinch that.
That would be an amazing turnaround for a team that, when it went to Missouri on Jan. 8, looked headed nowhere. The death of Fox’s father left him emotional. But he and players have said that wasn’t the reason they played well that night.
“I feel like even when we were 6-6 we were very close,” junior forward Marcus Thornton said. “Maybe not to the level (we wanted). We were close to getting one more stop here, one more rebound here, and we would have been, I don’t know, 8-4, or something like that. We weren’t lacking as much confidence as we thought (we needed) one moment in the season to turn it around.”
Confidence has been something Fox has stressed all season but mainly that his team lacked it. Being able to piece together a victory at Missouri -- the first away from Athens this season -- led to a 4-1 start to SEC play.
“I don’t think we were confident, because I think confidence comes when you get good at something,” Fox said. “I think we’ve improved as a team; we’ve gotten better at things, so we’ve developed confidence in different parts of our game. So I think overall we’re a more confident team than we were two months ago or even a month ago. But it’s still a very fragile thing.”
Said Thornton of the win over Missouri, “It was a start. We saw that we were able to beat a good team, especially on the road. That gave us a lot of confidence. It opened up our eyes. That’s what we kind of needed.”
Thornton’s play was also much needed. The junior forward, who took a medical redshirt last season after a third knee surgery, wasn’t much of a factor in non-conference play. But his post defense and rebounding have been key, again beginning at Missouri, when he had three blocks and six rebounds. But Georgia has continued to improve since then, according to Haith, who pointed to one big change: Kenny Gaines.
The sophomore forward has become a good shooter and prolific scorer, most recently pouring in 27 points Saturday at South Carolina. Gaines only had 11 points in the first Missouri game, missing all but one of his six 3-point attempts.
“He’s given them a perimeter threat, along with (Nemanja) Djurisic,” Haith said. “He’s gained confidence. ... He’s in a really good place right now, looking real comfortable on the basketball court.”