CHICAGO — It takes more than two to tango in the big dance. For Georgia, that means it is important to find a third scorer to complement the lead roles played by Ezra Williams and Jarvis Hayes most of the season.
Coach Jim Harrick believes that if three Bulldogs step up with strong games in Friday night's NCAA tournament first-round game against Murray State, then Georgia will move on to a second-round game Sunday at the United Center. But if only two play near their top form, then the third-seeded Bulldogs may be vulnerable for an upset.
The most logical picks to step up as scorers are forward Chris Daniels and point guard Rashad Wright.
Daniels' scoring has been on the decline, though he has posted career highs in rebounds (15) and steals (seven) in his last two games. He leads the team in rebounds, blocked shots and steals.
Wright's primary role is to distribute the ball to other scorers, but he has emerged as a scoring threat as he has gained more confidence in his 3-point shooting.
"As I look over the course of the year, this team has been the most successful when three guys have stepped up for us,'' said Coach Jim Harrick.
"Not always Daniels and maybe not even Ezra and Jarvis. I think we need three guys to really step up and play and have real good solid games in order for us to be successful.''
Including starting forward Steve Thomas and top backup Jonas Hayes, Georgia has enjoyed strong balance most of the season. But as the Bulldogs fell into a mini-slump late in the season, that balance fell off.
In a stretch that covered the middle of the season, including the first month of the Southeastern Conference schedule, Daniels scored in double figures in 15 of 17 games. Since then, however, he has been held to eight or fewer points in five of eight games.
Daniels finds other ways to contribute, including his 15 rebounds in the final regular-season game against Tennessee and his seven steals in the SEC tournament loss to LSU. He added five assists against LSU but scored only five points.
One reason Daniels' scoring has tailed off is that teams have used fewer gimmick defenses designed to stop Jarvis Hayes and Williams. The demonstrated ability of Daniels, Wright and even Thomas to step up with big games when left alone has resulted in more vanilla looks from opposing defenses.
When Hayes is left in man coverages, Harrick wants the ball in his hands. As a result, Hayes was the conference's leading scorer in SEC games and was a consensus All-SEC first-team pick, but Daniels was left were fewer shot opportunities late in the year.
"As the season progressed, teams started playing us more straight-up,'' said Daniels, who insists he did not mind.
"It opened up things for everybody,'' he said.
The player who picked up his scoring late in the regular season was Wright, who scored a career-high 17 points in the SEC tournament loss to LSU.
Wright hit the game-winning shot on Feb. 23 at LSU and sank the game-saving 3-pointer in Athens to help Georgia hold off South Carolina on Feb. 27.Scoring in double figures in four of his last six games, Wright has pushed his average up to 8.6 points per game.
"The second half of the league, he stepped up his game the way you want everyone to do,'' said Harrick of Wright.
"He made some big-time shots so that now I'm not afraid for him to shoot the ball for us. Before I was saying get the ball to the others, set the table for them. Now he's right there with Ezra and Jarvis in that I don't really care what shot he takes.''
Added Harrick: "Boy, I'll tell you, that's been a while coming and that's a credit to him. I'm very comfortable with Rashad Wright and where he is right now.''
Wright is best known for his dramatically improved ball-handling skills. He leads the SEC with his ratio of 2.19 assists for every turnover. He is only the second player in school history to deliver 100 assists in each of his first two seasons.
A year ago, as freshmen starters, Wright, Daniels and the Bulldogs were happy just to be in the NCAA tournament. Now Wright admits he has looked ahead at the possibility of Georgia making a run deep into the tournament.
"Yeah, you've got to look at it,'' Wright said. "There are things you just look at. We can't forget we have a tough game ahead of us. We just have to play hard and try to get a win.''
Charles Odum can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com