Tuesday May 31st, 2016 1:49AM

Georgia needs more wins to join NCAA bubble watch

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA -- The SEC standings make Georgia look like a team worthy of NCAA tournament consideration.

The RPI tells a different story.

Georgia, which plays Missouri on Tuesday night, has a firm hold on third place in the Southeastern Conference at 9-5. The Bulldogs are two games ahead of a pack of seven teams tied for fourth, including Missouri.

A poor start to the season has Georgia only 15-11 overall and, with a RPI of 89, excluded from most NCAA bubble watch talk.

The Bulldogs need a strong finish in their final four regular-season games, including wins this week over Missouri (19-8, 7-7 SEC) and Arkansas (18-9, 7-7), to earn more NCAA credibility.

"I always believed in this group," junior forward Marcus Thornton said Monday. "For us to get there we had to believe in each other. For us to go further we have to continue to believe the same thing."

Led by sophomore guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines, Georgia has won five of six to trail only No. 1 Florida and No. 17 Kentucky in the conference.

The bad news: Eight SEC teams are ahead of Georgia in the RPI. Unless it wins the March 12-16 SEC tournament in Atlanta, Georgia might be a fit for the NIT.

Any postseason talk seemed far-fetched when Georgia started the season 1-4 as it adjusted to the loss of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the No. 8 overall pick by Detroit in the 2013 draft.

Coach Mark Fox said his players worked in the offseason to replace Caldwell-Pope's scoring, but struggled to fill other voids left by his departure.

"Kentavious was also our leading rebounder and our best defender," Fox said Monday. "Our guys in the offseason worked hard figuring out ways to score because they knew that was going to be an issue. I think early in the year we were not a very good defensive or rebounding team because we didn't adjust to that part of Kentavious' departure.

"So I think in December the big adjustment we made was to replace that, and the offensive adjustment has been kind of a steady thing all year."

Even with Caldwell-Pope scoring 18.5 points per game, Georgia finished only 15-17 last season. This team has better balance. Gaines scored a career-high 27 points in the Bulldogs' 73-56 win at South Carolina on Saturday. Mann leads the team with 13.2 points per game.

South Carolina coach Frank Martin said Georgia has more experience this season.

"Last year all those guys, Mann and Gaines, were puppies," Martin said Monday.

"But now they're rolling. I think Georgia is playing real good basketball right now. Mann is a real hard matchup because he's so good off the dribble and Gaines is shooting.

"Obviously he did it against us, just anytime you lose him it's a 3. They're a very good basketball team. ... I can tell you this. I'm happy we don't play them anymore."

Gaines has led Georgia in scoring in three straight games.

"I've just been making shots," Gaines said. "I feel like I've been taking some of the same shots I was taking earlier. They just seem to be falling late in the season."

Missouri was No. 21 when Georgia took a 70-64 overtime win on Jan. 8. It is Georgia's only win over a Top 25 team.

Fox said he hasn't talked with his players about how many more wins might be needed to enter the NCAA tournament picture.

"We don't talk about it," Fox said. "We just talk about Missouri. It's one game at a time and the rest of it will take care of itself. We can't manage much more than taking care of one game at a time. That's no disrespect to our players or our coaches. That's probably the only way I can function."
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