Georgia basketball, SEC beginning their most important two months

Georgia Basketball: Georgia at Auburn
Georgia Basketball: Georgia at Auburn /

Georgia basketball travels to Gainesville this Saturday to play the Florida Gators. The Bulldogs beat Ole Miss Wednesday night to improve to 3-1 in the SEC.

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It’s been repeated numerous times on Dawn of the Dawg and elsewhere in the media covering Georgia basketball that this is a very important year for Mark Fox’s Bulldogs and the SEC.

Kentucky has had a firm grip on SEC basketball for quite some time. But since Billy Donovan left Florida, the Wildcats grip has grown much stronger. Now it’s Kentucky at the top and a group of SEC teams scrambling to claim those following spots so they can make a run at Kentucky in the near future.

The Georgia Bulldogs

In that group are the Georgia Bulldogs. they are coming off their third straight 20-win season and fourth such season this decade. The last time Georgia basketball had three consecutive 20-win seasons was from 1995-to-1998, and Georgia has never had four 20-win seasons in the span of six years.

There’s no doubt that Mark Fox has Georgia basketball in a good position. However, over the last three seasons, their SEC record has been on a decline. In 2013-14 Georgia went 12-6 in the in conference, in 2014-15 they were 11-7 and last season they went 10-8.

Fox has Georgia on their way up the hump, but lately they have been spinning their wheels trying to get over the hump.

The rest of the group

Meanwhile, Frank Martin has South Carolina playing some of the best basketball in program history. They are the only team to beat Georgia in the SEC so far. Bruce Pearl has also elevated Auburn basketball the same way he did at Tennessee several years ago. Although Georgia beat Auburn a couple of weeks ago to open their SEC schedule.

Of course Mike White has not done much harm for the Florida Gators, the Gators are 13-3 and will be favored over Georgia this Saturday afternoon.

Then there’s Ole Miss with Andy Kennedy, Arkansas with Mike Anderson, Mississippi State with Ben Howland and Texas A&M with Billy Kennedy all right there in the mix.

As Kentucky is going for their third straight SEC title and looking to start a run at their ninth NCAA Tournament Championship, there are seven teams scrambling for those other top spots in the SEC.

Georgia and company are trying to build a program that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Kentucky year after year, win SEC championships and compete for National championships.

The NIT isn’t satisfactory anymore. Years ago, making the NIT was considered a success and a highlight for Georgia and others in the SEC. Now, as the gap between Kentucky and the rest of the SEC gets wider and wider, NIT trips just aren’t cutting it anymore.

Raising the stakes

Despite Georgia’s three straight 20-win seasons, they settled for the NIT twice. And while fans should still support the team and the players should still aim to win that tournament, it was still a disappointment that Georgia was not in the big dance. Other fan bases in the SEC know that feeling and they, and the respective athletic departments are tired of it.

The stakes in the SEC are higher than they’ve ever been and the pressure is getting cranked up on everyone. For Georgia, lose the wrong games and you’re back in the NIT watching other SEC teams play in the NCAA Tournament.

What does it matter if the Bulldogs win 20 games again? Four straight 20-win years with three trips to the NIT is a sign of stagnation, not elevation. And the last thing the Georgia fan base wants to see is Florida, South Carolina and Auburn’s basketball programs elevate while theirs stagnates.

This weekend

As of now the Bulldogs are on the right track. They are 3-1 in the SEC with wins over two teams in that aforementioned group of seven. Their next game is against another team in that group, they’re also the most important team in the group for Georgia; the Florida Gators.

The Gators are the last SEC not named Kentucky to win a NCAA Tournament (2007 and 2008) and a SEC Tournament (2014). If Billy Donovan was still in Gainesville, Florida would not be in that group of seven, they’d be above it.

But this is a different program and while Mike White has Florida at 13-3 they are not the squad that dominated the SEC in the mid-to-late 2000’s. Florida is stable, but vulnerable and a win for the Bulldogs in Gainesville would be huge for Georgia.

The rest of January

But it means nothing if Georgia were to follow that win by losing games they shouldn’t like Vanderbilt next Tuesday and Alabama in two weeks.

Between those games is Texas A&M, a team that is in the group trying to get over the hump, but they are still reeling from a 100-58 let down against Kentucky. If the Bulldogs upset Florida and take care of business against Vanderbilt, a win in College Station would knock the Aggies into the “maybe next year” pile and keep Georgia in the “this is our year” group.

After playing Alabama, Georgia takes a break from SEC play to host the Texas Longhorns who opened the season in the top 25, but have since fallen to 7-9. But it is still a SEC/Big 12 Challenge game. It’s a 4 p.m. Saturday game on ESPN. All eyes will be on a Georgia team that could conceivably be 15-5 and 7-1 in the SEC going into the game.

Georgia closes the month with a trip to Lexington, Kentucky where the Bulldogs will be in the shadow of 50-plus men’s basketball banners, a 220-plus wins head coach and roster full of NBA prospects. Maybe that will be the Bulldogs night, but even a strong performance after a few big wins will do wonders for the teams confidence.

February and March Madness

Confidence will be needed because Georgia plays South Carolina just four days in Columbia. The rematch with Florida is right after that but the Bulldogs will be in Athens for that one.

A trip to Tennessee and games back home against Mississippi State and Kentucky follow. Georgia should beat Tennessee, but Mississippi State is another program in that group so the maroon Bulldogs will be just as hungry as Georgia. A home game against Kentucky will be better than a game in Rupp Arena, but it’s still Kentucky.

More from Dawn of the Dawg

Georgia finishes the regular season at Alabama, in Athens against LSU and Auburn, and the on the road against Arkansas. Auburn and Arkansas are in the group and will be aiming for high seeds in the SEC Tournament and trips to the NCAA Tournament when they play Georgia in early March.

Then it’ll be time for the SEC Tournament, the last chance for those seven teams to stake their claim to the rest of the top spots in the SEC and advance to the NCAA Tournament.

Finding their place

The teams who do that will have success to build on as they begin their elevation in the SEC. For the rest, it’s more stagnation. It’s another year of asking what they can do to get over the hump.

That’s not a position that Mark Fox and the Georgia Bulldogs can afford to be in much longer. The SEC is in a bigger mess than ever, but that mess will get sorted out. What they accomplish in 2017 will have a major effect on where Georgia basketball will be in the hierarchy in the SEC when that mess clears.