In the end, there just wasn't enough improbability left in the tank. Nor enough fresh bodies. The University of Georgia mens basketball team fell 73-61 to #3 seed Xavier yesterday in first round NCAA tournament action. We could dwell on the negatives, but in the grand scheme of things, there's really nothing wrong with simply running out of gas against one of the top 12 teams in the country after leading by 9 at the half and 11 in the second half. A few thoughts:
Xavier played the kind of defense in the second half that Coach Felton would like our team to play. But with 9 players you have to play a lot more zone to save your fouls and save the wear and tear that comes with following the backcourt guys all over the floor. I'm willing to bet that at some point the F-Bomb pulls this tape out for reference though.
The foul situation? I'm not as mad as some. Sure some of the fouls were ticky-tack. And Bliss's foul with 5:31 left (when he clearly pinned the ball without laying a paw on the Xavier player) was so much bovine excrement. But there were really four phenomena on display.
One is that the SEC is a very physical league. A typical Atlantic 10 game is a lot less rough and tumble and a lot more elegant for basketball purists (he said generalizing wildly based on his own observations). Every year SEC teams get into foul trouble in the tournament because of this. It's not just us.
Second, the tournament is usually very tightly officiated. I'm not sure why this is, but it is. It's almost a truism, and you have to adjust to it.
Third, we were obviously pretty deadlegged by the 8:00 minute mark of the second half. When you're tired and frustrated you foul more. In fairness, the majority of the fouls called on us were actually committed. The exceptions were obvious, but generally not obscene.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, Xavier did what every team has to do to win in the tournament: they hit the free throws they got, including the one-and-ones. They shot nearly 82% from the charity stripe, which includes an out-of-their-collective-minds stretch from the 12:00 mark to the end of the game, during which the Muskies went 20 of 22 from the line. That's just absurd.
During those final 12 minutes, Xavier also played like a 3 seed is supposed to. They didn't panic. They didn't give up. They didn't try to get it all back in one shot. I for one filled out two brackets this season, one in which I sentimentally picked us to beat Xavier and make it to the Sweet 16, and another in which I logically concluded that we would bow out to Xavier, who would then bow out to Purdue in the next round. I'm beginning to think that I underestimated Sean Miller's team significantly.
Speaking of Coach Miller, I thought his adjustments on defense were great and that he used his bench and timeouts to perfection. It really was a clinic watching he and Coach Felton try to accomplish the same goal using two very different sets of players to get there.
Finally, I think this gives us a lot to build on. We here at Dawgsports.com can't think of enough good things to say about Sundiata Gaines and Dave Bliss. If either one spots me at his neighborhood watering hole, his first drink of the night is on me. I should be easy to spot in this situation because I'll be the pudgy older guy wearing a Georgia Bulldog golf shirt/tee shirt/ baseball cap/bedroom slippers. You can't miss me.
But looking to the future, several players stepped up throughout the SEC tournament and began to show what they can do. Albert Jackson in particular scares me a lot less in the middle than he did just one month ago. There was a point there when I thought that if AJax handled a knife and fork the way he handled a basketball he'd starve to death. But he's gotten a lot more effective using his body to gain position and taking the shots he can make. He still has a ways to go, but he's getting there.
Jeremy Price also looked much better down the stretch, probably because he was getting a lot more floor time. Terrance Woodbury needs only to find consistency. If he does that, he could be the type of big guard that's too fast to be guarded by a big man and too big for your average guard to handle one on one. Only time will tell. Swansey looked a little lost at times on defense and has to become more physical. I don't know if he'll ever be that slashing, scoring point guard that we've become accustomed to this season with Yata. But he's definitely got promise scoring from the outside and distributing the basketball, which is a perfectly respectable thing for a point guard to do, after all.
And that's leaving aside Jeremy Jacob and Chris Barnes pending their return from injury. And Trey Thompkins getting minutes as a freshman. I'm not taking a Polly Anna approach to next season. There will be some tough teams in the SEC, and Coach Felton still has to prove his guys can consistently generate offense. But the past week has been a quantum leap forward in terms of the energy surrounding the program, and that counts for a lot. Congratulations guys. For the first time in recent memory, we're all looking forward to basketball season. How's that for a change?