UGA needs another miracle tourney run

ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia opens SEC tournament play against Mississippi State at 10 p.m. ET Thursday in New Orleans, hoping to duplicate the 2008 UGA club’s stunning run to a tournament championship.

This year’s Bulldogs (14-16, 5-11 SEC) have actually been more competitive than Dennis Felton’s bunch in 2008 (13-16 overall and 4-12 in the SEC), which shocked the college basketball world by winning three games in two days after tornadoes wreaked havoc in downtown Atlanta and affected the tournament schedule.

Nonetheless, this UGA club enters the tournament as an extreme long shot, just as the 2008 team did. It would require another magical run for Georgia to reach the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2001-02.

Here’s a rundown of what you need to know as the Bulldogs try to fight their way into the postseason:

Opening opponent: Mississippi State (21-10, 8-8) is one of the more confusing teams in the league. The Bulldogs have one of the league’s more dominant post duos in Arnett Moultrie (16.1 ppg, 10.7 rpg) and Renardo Sidney (10.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and an outstanding guard in Dee Bost (15.8 ppg, 5.3 apg), which would seem to indicate success. And yet the Bulldogs struggled to live up to their potential, closing SEC play with six losses in their final 10 games.

Depth is one of State’s most glaring weaknesses, so Georgia could benefit if it gets a couple of key players in foul trouble.

Their first meeting: Mississippi State is actually the only SEC team Georgia defeated on the road this season. It was also the first time Georgia defeated a ranked team on the road since 2004.

UGA won 70-68 in overtime, with Gerald Robinson (14 ppg, 4 rpg, 3.7 apg) scoring the game-tying layup in the closing seconds of regulation and then scoring eight of his 13 points in overtime. SEC All-Freshman Team member Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (13.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg) led Georgia with 20 points, including the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:01 left in overtime.

Sidney was tough in stretches, finishing with 10 points and 12 rebounds while using his imposing size to his advantage. But overall, Georgia’s post players neutralized State’s big men, holding Moultrie to 12 points and six rebounds. Georgia’s top two big men, Donte Williams (8 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Marcus Thornton (3 ppg, 5.1 rpg), combined for 16 rebounds while Sidney and Moultrie combined for 18.

Key to victory: Georgia must make Sidney and Moultrie work and make State pay when they don’t.

The two big men would much rather sag down around the basket than chase Georgia’s quick guards off ball screens at the top of the key. If Mississippi State insists on playing man-to-man defense, Georgia can force Moultrie and Sidney to put in extra work playing help defense against Caldwell-Pope, Robinson and Dustin Ware (7.9 ppg) off of screens.

They almost never played adequate help defense in such situations in the teams’ first meeting, which left Georgia with several open shots from the perimeter -- and UGA shot 42 percent from 3-point range in that game. Georgia must make State pay by hitting shots if its big men repeat that defensive effort, but don’t be surprised if State plays more zone defense in Thursday’s rematch.

If they advance: With a win against Mississippi State, Georgia would face third-seeded Vanderbilt (21-10, 10-6) at 10 p.m. ET Friday. The Commodores swept the regular-season series against Georgia, winning 77-66 in Nashville and 61-52 in Athens.

Stronger finish: Georgia got off to an abysmal 1-7 start in SEC play, but performed significantly better in the second half of conference play. The Bulldogs went 4-4 in that stretch, with wins against Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi State and South Carolina and road losses by fewer than 10 points against LSU and South Carolina.

Wins thus far: Georgia has just six wins against top-100 teams in ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s InsideRPI rankings. They include: No. 26 Florida, No. 38 Notre Dame, No. 55 South Dakota State, No. 60 Mississippi State, No. 75 Tennessee and No. 98 Arkansas. Georgia is 111th in the InsideRPI rankings.

UGA tourney history: Georgia has advanced past the second round in the SEC tournament only once since 1998. That was in 2008, when the Bulldogs won the tournament. The Bulldogs have won the tournament twice (also in 1983) and reached the finals six times.

Schedule: (All times Eastern)

Today (TV: SEC Network and available at ESPN3.com)

1 p.m.: Arkansas (18-13, 6-10) vs. LSU (17-13, 7-9)

3:30 p.m.: South Carolina (10-20, 2-14) vs. Alabama (20-10, 9-7)

7:30 p.m.: Auburn (15-15, 5-11) vs. Ole Miss (18-12, 8-8)

10 p.m.: Georgia (14-16, 5-11) vs. Mississippi State (21-10, 8-8)

Friday (TV: SEC Network and available at ESPN3.com)

1 p.m.: Arkansas/LSU vs. Kentucky (30-1, 16-0)

3:30 p.m.: South Carolina/Alabama vs. Florida (22-9, 10-6)

7:30 p.m.: Auburn/Ole Miss vs. Tennessee (18-13, 10-6)

10 p.m.: Georgia/Mississippi State vs. Vanderbilt (21-10, 10-6)

Saturday (TV: ABC)

Semifinal 1: 1 p.m.

Semifinal 2: 3:30 p.m.

Sunday (TV: ABC)

Finals: 1 p.m.