Tennessee, which expected to reach the NCAA tournament this season, has lost three of its last four games to put those hopes in serious jeopardy. Georgia, picked before the season to finish 11th in the Southeastern Conference, has won four straight to move into sole possession of third place in the league standings.
Georgia (14-10, 8-4 SEC) has bounced back in a big way since losing four of its first five games this season. The Bulldogs initially struggled to replace 2012-13 SEC player of the year Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who turned pro after his sophomore season and went to the Detroit Pistons with the eighth overall pick in the NBA draft.
“It’s such a major adjustment learning to play without Kentavious, but we’ve certainly matured and adjusted and learned how this group can play,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “I think we always believed in our team.”
Tennessee (15-10, 6-6) remains in better position than Georgia to reach the NCAA tournament. Tennessee is 54th and Georgia 88th in the RPI that was released Monday. Mock brackets by CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm and ESPN’s Joe Lunardi have Tennessee participating in a play-in game with Georgia left out of the field.
But the Bulldogs are playing better lately. Fox said a return to health has helped.
Injuries caused guards Kenny Gaines and Juwan Parker to miss a 79-54 loss to Kentucky and also prevented Gaines from playing in a 59-54 loss to Vanderbilt last month. Both are playing again.
“We’ve not done anything different the last two weeks than we did before,” Fox said. “We just have all our guys.”
Tennessee continues searching for answers at point guard, where freshman Darius Thompson and Memphis transfer Antonio Barton have been sharing time.
Barton has shot 9 of 41 overall and 2 of 22 from 3-point range over his last seven games. Thompson hasn’t committed a turnover in his last three games, but he isn’t much of a scorer and his defense remains a work in progress.
The Vols also must create more opportunities for forward Jarnell Stokes, who went 7 of 8 Saturday in a 75-70 loss at Missouri but didn’t attempt a shot in the last 17 1/2 minutes of the game.
“You’ve got to do a better job of getting it inside to him, even if I have to throw it inside to him myself as a coach from the sideline,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said.
Tennessee won’t play a team ranked better than 88th in the RPI until its March 8 regular-season finale with Missouri. The Vols have trips to Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn plus home games with Vanderbilt and Missouri after the Georgia matchup.
That type of schedule won’t allow Tennessee the type of victory that can impress the NCAA tournament selection committee. The Vols also can’t take anything for granted. They’re 1-3 so far against their six remaining opponents.
Martin says he isn’t focusing on the pressure surrounding the Vols’ bid to earn the NCAA tournament bid that eluded them his first two seasons on the job. He’s simply focusing on the task at hand and trying to design game plans to put his team in the best position to win.
“You don’t consume yourself with the periphery or whatever pressures,” Martin said. “I don’t think anybody or anything can put more pressure on me than myself.”