It’s been a rough opening round of the NCAA Tournament for the Southeastern Conference. The Kentucky Wildcats struggled, the Vanderbilt Commodores were upset, and the Tennessee Volunteers got spanked. Aside from the Florida Gators’ dominant win, the league has had its troubles in the tourney, and so it was for the Georgia Bulldogs, who fell 68-65 to the Washington Huskies after being tied with the Pac-10 champions at the break.
The game got off to a sloppy start for both teams, but, for the most part, the Red and Black were able to execute their game plan in the first half. Georgia kept the pace at a manageable level and hung tough defensively, keeping Washington’s shooting at an acceptably low percentage, particularly from beyond the arc. The result was a halftime deadlock that left Bulldog Nation feeling not great, but at least good.
The easily foreseeable second-half run came, as anticipated, and, though it was nothing like a meltdown on a par with the one that came at the end of the SEC Tournament showdown with the Alabama Crimson Tide, it was enough to give the Huskies a comfortable cushion. By the time the Bulldogs regrouped, regained their composure, and got back to playing their game, all the two teams could do was trade baskets as the Purple and Gold maintained an eight- to ten-point lead that remained constant for much of the time as the minutes ticked away. The team continued to play hard, right down to an end that was not bitter because what threatened to become an embarrassment wound up being a nailbiter.
The Athenians turned the ball over too often, took too many poor shots from too far away, and did not do what they needed to do to win against a solid yet beatable foe. Once that is said, though, this also must be said: Travis Leslie displayed a burning desire to win that came through in all that he did; Trey Thompkins, as usual, played basketball the way Peter Krause acts, demonstrating his craftsmanship in such a way that excellence appeared effortless; Mark Fox continued to show that the essence of coaching is teaching, well past the point at which the game was out of reach, secure in the knowledge that how this team handled the closing moments of this tournament game would impact how future teams will handle happier days in the field of 68. When the fall was all there was, it mattered how this team fell down.
If rumors are to be believed, all three of those men have concluded their careers in the Classic City, although I hold out some small hope that one or the other of the two junior standouts might return, and I don’t believe for one minute that the N.C. State Wolfpack could outbid the Red and Black for Coach Fox’s services if it came to that. Irrespective of whether those key players return, however, whatever cast of characters takes the floor for the Bulldogs in Stegeman Coliseum next autumn will represent a program that proved through its play on Friday night that it earned its tourney berth, not through a tornado-fueled fluke, nor through conduct that one day will land the program on probation, but by doing at least passably well those things a team must do to improve, little by little, day by day.
Several of the Fox Hounds’ second-half collapses and last-second losses this season stung. This one didn’t. The team many scoffed at for receiving a ten seed---the ten seed deemed by the oddsmakers to be the biggest underdog in all the first round matchups with seven seeds---played its heart out and came up just short against a solid squad in the midst of a hot run. There have been some shameful setbacks this season; this wasn’t one of them.
It has been at least a decade since a Georgia men’s basketball team made an NCAA Tournament field with anything like legitimacy. This team made the Big Dance honestly, and it will do so again, and soon. I guess I should be disappointed, because this was the end of the season. What I am instead is proud, because this looks to me more like a beginning.
At the end of the Constitutional convention, Benjamin Franklin spoke of the carving on the back of George Washington’s chair, which depicted the sun half-hidden by the horizon. "I have often looked at that picture behind the president," said Dr. Franklin, "without being able to tell whether it was a rising or setting sun. Now at length I have the happiness to know that it is indeed a rising, not a setting sun."
More than two years before that momentous event, the Georgia General Assembly had chartered the nation’s first state university, whose oldest college was christened in honor of Dr. Franklin. Upon the campus of that august institution, Mark Fox has restored to relevance a basketball program that historically has inspired a range of emotions running the gamut from embarrassment to indifference.
As a graduate of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, I have often looked at our basketball program and been convinced that the sight of the half-moon of Stegeman Coliseum sitting astride the horizon was, at best, that of a setting sun, and perhaps that of a stillborn star that never would know what it was to rise. Now at length I have the happiness to know it is indeed a rising, not a setting sun.
Is it basketball season yet?