Bulldogs finding a lot left to play for during recent streak

There didn’t seem to be an awful lot for the Georgia men’s basketball team to play for as recently as mid-January.

Now there is plenty.

Continuing to move up in the Southeastern Conference standings.

Positioning itself for higher seeding in the SEC tournament.

Moving into contention for a postseason berth.

The NIT could now be in play, but how about the NCAA tournament? The Bulldogs would almost certainly still need to get the SEC’s automatic bid by winning the conference tournament.

“There just isn’t an at-large possibility for Georgia — they have to win the SEC tournament,” said Jerry Palm, who does bracket projections for CBSSports.com.

That’s even with Georgia (12-11, 6-4 SEC) “playing as well as anybody in the league,” as Alabama coach Anthony Grant said.

The Bulldogs head into today’s 9 p.m. game at Stegeman Coliseum against the Crimson Tide (15-8, 7-3) as winners six of their last seven games. It’s quite a reversal for a team that began the season 2-7 and started SEC play 0-3.

“We’ve had one focus the entire year — the next game,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “That’s all these young guys can handle. We can’t manage any bigger picture than that.”

That approach has served the Bulldogs well during their five-game winning streak, the program’s longest in the SEC in 12 years. But Palm said he still doesn’t see an NCAA at-large bid in the cards for a team that was No. 111 Monday in the NCAA’s official Ratings Percentage Index, which was ninth in the SEC.

“They’ve played nicely, but they’re not beating Florida, they’re not beating Missouri,” Palm said. “They’re not beating the kinds of teams they need to beat to make the NCAA tournament. They would have to beat all of them. Realistically, the only way they make the tournament is to win on March 17. That’s how they make the tournament.”

The Bulldogs’ biggest wins on its résumé are two against RPI No. 76 Texas A&M. Georgia has two games left with No. 64 Alabama and also plays No. 45 Ole Miss and No. 49 Kentucky.

“Mississippi and Kentucky, Georgia can hurt, but they can’t help themselves,” Palm said. “Not nearly enough to overcome what they’ve already done.”

Georgia is 0-5 against top 50 RPI teams and has five losses to teams outside the top 100, including No. 169 Youngstown State and No. 223 Mississippi State.

“You can’t live life backwards,” Fox said. “That’s why the rearview mirror is smaller than the windshield. You just have to learn your lessons and keep moving forward.”

Georgia is tied for fifth in the 14-team SEC, which would get Georgia a first-day bye in the SEC tournament next month in Nashville that goes to all but the bottom four teams. The top four teams get double byes into the quarterfinals.

“I still don’t think we’re playing our best basketball,” Fox said. “I think there’s a lot of room for us to still improve.”

Given where Georgia has come from this season, making the 32-team NIT field would still be quite a comeback story, but the Bulldogs still might have work to do there to get in position.

Teams that got into the NIT field last year without getting in automatically as regular season conference champion ranged from No. 43 in the RPI to 130, according to the “The Bracket Project.”

From the SEC, Ole Miss got in the NIT at No. 61, Mississippi State at No. 75, LSU at No. 84 and Tennessee at No. 87.

Palm projects the SEC as a four-bid league for the NCAA tournament, with Florida, Ole Miss, Missouri and Kentucky getting in.

Georgia will keep trying to climb game by game.

“We’re not satisfied yet,” guard Kenatvious Caldwell-Pope said. “We do need to keep building up our momentum. Just knowing we’re above .500 now and doing well, we’ve just got to continue to fight. We just can’t be satisfied with what we’re doing right now.”

Alabama at Georgia

When: 9 p.m. today

Where: Stegeman Coliseum

TV: ESPNU

Radio: WRFC 960-AM

Records: Alabama is 15-8, 7-3 SEC; Georgia is 12-11, 6-4 SEC

Season at a glance: Alabama enters the game tied for third in the SEC with Ole Miss, a game ahead of fifth-place Georgia and Missouri. Alabama beat LSU 60-57 on Saturday night, but didn’t hit the 60-point mark in its previous six games, including a 49-37 loss at Auburn. The Crimson Tide has won seven of its last nine games. Georgia enters the game with wins in six of its last seven games, including five straight. The Bulldogs are averaging 60.6 points per game in their last five games but opponents have averaged just 53 points. Georgia beat Texas A&M 52-46 on Saturday despite top scorer Kentavious Caldwell-Pope being held to 10 points and no field goals.

Probable starting lineups:

Alabama: G Trevor Lacey (6-3, 215, So., 11.9 ppg, 3.2 apg); G Trevor Releford (6-0, 195, Jr., 14.9 ppg, 2.1 rpg); G Levi Randolph (6-5, 205, So, 7.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg.); F Rodney Cooper (6-6, 215, So., 10.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg); C Mousa Gueye (7-0, 255, Jr., 1.5 ppg. 4.4 rpg).

Georgia: G Vincent Williams (6-0, 165, Sr., 5.2 ppg, 2.1 apg); G Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (6-5, 205, So., 17.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg ); F: Brandon Morris (6-7, 205, Fr., 4.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg); F Donte’ Williams (6-9, 225, Jr., 5.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg); C John Florveus (6-11, 240, Sr., 2.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg).

Series record: Alabama leads 91-47, including the last three. The Crimson Tide lead 30-27 in Athens.

Last meeting: The Crimson Tide won 74-59 on Jan. 7, 2012 in Athens. Caldwell-Pope scored 22 points. Alabama built a 12-point first half lead and shot 55.1 percent from the field.

Noteworthy: Georgia is 48th in the nation in scoring defense at 60.7 points per game. Alabama is No. 18 at 57.8. The Crimson Tide has held eight straight SEC opponents to 60 points or fewer. … Alabama and Georgia are the two lowest scoring teams in SEC play this season. Alabama averages 58.7 points per game and Georgia is at 58.4. … Alabama snapped a five-game Georgia winning streak in the SEC opener last year, but the Bulldogs had built that up against Southern California, Mercer, Furman, Winthrop and Delaware State. This time Georgia beat Texas A&M twice, Auburn, South Carolina and Tennessee. … Alabama is 3-5 in true road games this season. … Five of Alabama’s top six scorers are freshmen or sophomores. … The Crimson Tide is third in the SEC in steals at 8.7 per game. Caldwell-Pope is second among players in steals at 2.26. … Gueye is a transfer from Lake Land College in Matoon, Ill., who missed last season due to a torn ACL in his left knee. … Georgia made a season-high 25 free throws on Saturday against Texas A&M.

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