SEC tournament will be UGA’s biggest turnaround test

The only tournament the Georgia men’s basketball team has played in this season ended with the Bulldogs going home without a win on what players remembered as a quiet flight back from Charleston, S.C.

“It was somewhat of a dark time for us,” junior forward Marcus Thornton said. “I think we still believed and we believed we could be good. We weren’t quite there yet.”

Three and a half months later, things are much brighter around the Bulldogs, who bussed to Atlanta on Wednesday to get ready for a Friday night Southeastern Conference tournament quarterfinal game at the Georgia Dome.

Coach Mark Fox played an old-school mix of some Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson during a light practice on Monday in Athens.

It was a long way from that 1-4 start after going 0-3 in the Charleston Classic before Thanksgiving. Fox said at the time he was “disappointed in our results here. There’s no way to hide the fact that we haven’t gotten it done with this group yet, but they’re going to continue to grow and improve.”

They did, going 17-8 the rest of the way, including 12-6 in the SEC to finish in a tie for second place with Kentucky and get the tournament’s No. 3 seed.

“Early on in the season, we didn’t know who we were,” sophomore forward Brandon Morris said. “We didn’t have our identity. We were losing our premier scorer.”

NBA lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s absence was felt early, but Georgia has found its identity as the season has gone on.

Athletic director Greg McGarity, who had been quiet during SEC play on the season and Fox, said in an interview aired Wednesday on 680-AM in Atlanta that “there’s some obvious things that have transpired that I think have really warmed the hearts of all Bulldogs.”

Forward/center Donte’ Williams said he believed in November that once Georgia “learned to defend and rebound, we could be a good team.”

Georgia was tops in SEC play in field goal percentage defense (38.8) and third in rebounding margin (6.1).

“We’ve just got to keep it up,” Williams said.

Georgia (18-12) plays Friday against either No. 6 seed Ole Miss or Mississippi State, which knocked off Vanderbilt Wednesday night.

The Bulldogs probably need to win the SEC tournament to get in the NCAA tournament due to a No. 75 RPI that is pulled down by November losses to Georgia Tech in Athens and Davidson and Temple in Charleston. All are 148 or lower in the RPI.

“I realize in November that Georgia was not an at-large team,” Fox said Wednesday. “OK, but the Georgia team right now is pretty damn good. We’ve got more to work to do before we can realistically argue that, but if you just rely on numbers you can make any case that you want.”

Williams said Fox remained upbeat even after the 1-4 start.

“That’s something we needed to go through to become a good basketball team,” Fox said. “I wasn’t very happy with it, but I didn’t waver in my belief of our team.”

Said Williams: “We kept on saying we’ve got like 25-plus more games to go. We’re not going to hang our heads down on five games. Everybody knew we had a lot of games to win, a lot of big games to play.”

And there are more coming for Georgia this weekend.

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