Make no joke about it; the SEC is wide open outside of Kentucky. With just two teams ranked in the Top 25, no one has been able to stand out as the clear cut second best team in the conference. The top of the conference is muddled with teams a win away from claiming second place, or falling all the way into a multiway tie in the middle of the pack. Three teams are tied for second at 7-3 in the SEC, while two more are tied for third place at 6-4.
One team to keep an eye on is Mark Fox’s Georgia Bulldogs. Now in his sixth season at UGA, Fox has compiled a respectable 100-84 record. Predecessor Dennis Felton managed just an 84-91 mark in his five-plus seasons before getting fired in 2009. Fox has brought with him a tough nosed mentality that helped him go 123-43 at Nevada before accepting the position at Georgia. The Dawgs haven’t made a trip to the NCAA Tournament since the 2010-11 season, Fox’s second season, but Georgia is off to a strong start and has a chance to sneak back into the big dance.
The season started inauspiciously when the Bulldogs were stung at Georgia Tech, 80-73 to open up the 2014-15 campaign. Georgia managed to respond well though, finishing 9-3 in non-conference play. Along the way, they were able to pick up nice wins over Colorado, Kansas State, and the emerging Seton Hall Pirates. Losses included a four-point defeat to Minnesota and a hard fought 88-76 loss to top ten Gonzaga.
In conference play, Georgia has also proven to be a tough out. The Dawgs (15-7, 6-4) have already beaten Florida, Ole Miss, and Tennessee. Their losses came to current No. 24 Arkansas by four, LSU in double-overtime by three, and most recently No. 1 Kentucky by 11 at Rupp Arena. The major blemish on Georgia’s record was a 67-50 loss to South Carolina who is just 11-11 overall and 2-8 in the SEC.
Leading scorer and rebounder Marcus Thornton missed the Kentucky and South Carolina games due to an injury. The senior forward has progressed each season and is averaging 13.2 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. He leads a Bulldog team that has five players score in double figures. Kenny Gaines, Charles Mann, and Nemanja Djurisic all average 11 points while J.J. Frazier comes in at 10.8. Frazier, only a sophomore, had the most eye opening game of maybe any SEC player this year when the Dawgs traveled to The Hump to face Mississippi State. The 5-foot-10 guard exploded for 37 points on 12 of 14 shooting and 7 of 7 from beyond the three-point line.
The strength of this Georgia team besides its coaching has been its balanced scoring attack and strong rebounding. With five players averaging double figures, opposing defenses cannot key on just one man. Frazier, Gaines, and Thornton can all get hot on any given night. The Bulldogs also do a good job on the glass averaging nearly 38 rebounds per game. Being able to limit second chance points has been a boon for Coach Fox.
Though they currently sit in fifth place in the standings, Georgia is just a game out of second place. Key matchups loom with Texas A&M, Ole Miss, and Kentucky all on the horizon. If Georgia is able to take care of business and win the games they are supposed to, they should enter the conference tournament flirting with 20 wins. In ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s most recent Bracketology, he places Georgia as a number eight seed in the West Region. He also has a whopping six teams out of the SEC making the tournament.
The Dawgs look poised to make a run in the SEC tournament and clinch their first March Madness bid in five seasons and if Coach Fox can reach the 22 win plateau, it would be the school’s best record since 2001-02 with Jim Harrick. Coach Fox has methodically built Georgia into a respectable program and has the Dawgs hungry as a silent but deadly dark horse entering March.