ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia opened SEC play against three of the conference’s five best teams -- a merciless opening slate for such a young Bulldogs team.
After consecutive losses to Alabama, Florida and Vanderbilt -- teams that are a combined 40-12 overall and 7-2 in league play -- the Bulldogs (9-8, 0-3 SEC) have yet to win a conference game. South Carolina (8-9, 0-3) is the only other SEC team without an SEC win.
The Bulldogs’ best chances yet to end that slide come tonight and Saturday, when Tennessee (8-9, 1-2) and Ole Miss (11-6, 1-2), respectively, visit Stegeman Coliseum. Watch tonight’s game on ESPN3.
“We realize we’re off to a slow start, but we’re not hanging our heads,” said Georgia coach Mark Fox, whose team hosts Tennessee today at 8 p.m. “There’s another game coming and we’ve got to do everything we can do to get ready for it and try to win it. Soon as it’s done, win or lose, there’s another one around the corner from that. In basketball, you’ve got to have that mentality.”
The bright side to the Bulldogs’ 0-3 start is that they have not been overwhelmed, despite the high level of competition.
The Bulldogs gave one of their scrappiest efforts of the season in last Saturday’s loss at Vanderbilt -- a notoriously difficult place to compete. Georgia trailed the Commodores 70-66 with 1:19 to play before Vanderbilt pulled away to win 77-66.
Similarly, the Bulldogs were within five points of Alabama, 55-50, with 8:12 remaining before Alabama slammed the door on a 74-59 victory.
Even in a 70-48 loss at Florida, Georgia closed within 13 points of the Gators with 4:45 remaining after trailing by 25 points earlier in the second half.
Those are the moments where Georgia’s inexperience has shown most glaringly, as bad shots, fouls and turnovers have often been the Bulldogs’ undoing at clutch time.
“It was a very hard moment, especially for our freshmen. For me, it was too, because I made a couple of bad mistakes and bad decisions,” freshman forward Nemanja Djurisic said of the loss at Vanderbilt. “But for all of us, we did show our inexperience throughout the last couple minutes. In the last four, five, six minutes, we made a lot of bad decisions and we didn’t take care of the ball like we should. We fouled too much throughout the whole game and hopefully when we get rid of these mistakes, we’ll be able to win the games.”
Another key will be for Georgia to perform with greater consistency on the defensive end.
The common thread through their first three SEC games is that the Bulldogs allowed their opponent to shoot better than 50 percent each time. Alabama shot a whopping 55 percent from the floor, while Florida shot 50 and Vanderbilt 51.
Fox said that, too, is partially a product of the Bulldogs’ inexperience.
“We had three guys foul out in Vandy and a lot of it is tied to just our inexperience, so we’re a step behind. When you’re a step behind, you’re often in position to just foul,” Fox said. “I have not been pleased with our defensive numbers. A lot of it is instead of getting a stop and helping our defensive percentage, we’re getting a foul. So it’s really affected our field-goal percentage defense also.”
The Bulldogs could get a boost in that area soon, as Fox remains hopeful that sophomore post Marcus Thornton will rejoin the team shortly.
Thornton started nine of the first 12 games and led the team with 5.8 rebounds per game when he left the Dec. 23 Furman game with a knee injury. The Bulldogs, already short on depth and experience in the post, struggled to rebound effectively even more in his absence.
When Thornton returns to competition, however, don’t expect for him to play heavy minutes initially. Fox said it will be important to slowly work the 6-foot-7 forward back into the rotation so as not to re-aggravate the injury.
“I think we’re close,” Fox said. “But even if we got him back soon, I think it would be something where you still were pretty guarded on how much we put him on the practice floor and the game floor, just to get him 100 percent healthy.”
In the meantime, Fox wants to see a cleaner effort from the Bulldogs as they gain invaluable experience and contend for their first conference victory.
Georgia has been reasonably close against teams from the upper echelon of the SEC standings. Now Fox seeks a more consistent performance in games where the Bulldogs should expect to be competitive.
“We need to play well, and we need to play well for 40 minutes -- not 33, not 36, 40,” Fox said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to do that.”