ATHENS, Ga. — The high provided by the unexpected No. 3 seed in Sunday's NCAA tournament draw gave Georgia a boost in its return to practice Monday.
Even so, Coach Jim Harrick admits he is concerned about a late-season malaise that saw the Bulldogs lose six of their last 11 games, including a loss to Tennessee in their last regular-season game and an opening loss to LSU in the Southeastern Conference tournament.
Georgia (21-9) boasted enough strong credentials — including a 3-1 record against Florida and Kentucky in the SEC East — to merit the strong vote of confidence from the NCAA tournament selection committee Sunday. Harrick hopes the high seed will give his team a needed lift for its NCAA tournament first-round game against Murray State Wednesday night in Chicago.
But Harrick admits there is cause for concern.
Asked if he is worried about his team's recent play, Harrick's simple response was "Quite.''
Added Harrick Monday: "With all that's happened to our team, we have lost a little bit of intensity. From that intensity, our defense is not as good and we don't shoot the ball quite as well. Finding that magical level we were playing on, maybe it's just confidence and a couple of wins would cure it and bring that back.''
Georgia has battled adversity all season:
Starting forward Jarvis Hayes suffered an early season knee injury that at first was thought to be season-ending but eventually forced him to miss only three games.
Jonas Hayes, a fill-in starter and top backup, missed only one start but was slowed for several more games by a severe fracture to the ring finger on his left hand.
Starting forward Steve Thomas and backup point guard Tony Cole were accused of raping a student on campus two months ago. Each was suspended for three games in the middle of the SEC schedule until further evidence prompted Harrick to lift the suspensions.
The Athens-Clarke County District Attorney's office continues to study the case. No charges have been filed, but the case continues to hang over the team. Cole has never returned to an active status on the team, as he is addressing other unspecified problems with Richt.
Two starters — first Thomas and then Chris Daniels — were suspended in back-to-back games last month as the result of separate incidents in the Feb. 9 loss at Auburn.
Finally, in the latest and most tragic off-court event, starter Ezra Williams lost his older brother, who was shot and killed.
Georgia players rallied together after Williams attended his brother's funeral, and they responded with a 78-69 home win over then-No. 10 Kentucky. Georgia then took narrow wins at LSU and at home over South Carolina before losing at Tennessee when it had the opportunity to win the SEC East outright.
Harrick admits that his players appear to have lost confidence, as well as intensity, in the last month. There was much talk from the players Monday about regaining the proper focus to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.
"We've been thinking about a lot of things all year,'' said point guard Rashad Wright. "Right now it's just starting over. We've got to put everything behind us.''
Added Wright: "It's easier said than done, but you have to start over and play hard. You lose one game now and you're done.''
It may be that the tragedy in Williams' family hit the Georgia team the hardest. There is no question that the events put more pressure on the players through the season.
"It kind of builds up and takes its toll,'' Daniels said. "From players suspended to a death in the family. We've pretty much been through everything.''
Added Daniels, perhaps hopefully: "I think it has made us stronger. Coach Harrick tells us, tough times don't last, tough people do.''
Otherwise, Georgia won't last long in a tough NCAA tournament.
Charles can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com