Football-centric Georgia making a splash in men's hoops

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) Basketball is usually an afterthought at Georgia, something to pass the time between football season and spring practice.

That might be changing.

The Bulldogs have won five straight Southeastern Conference games, matching their longest streak in the league in the last 14 years, and are making a strong bid for their first NCAA tournament berth since 2011.

Georgia (14-5, 5-2 SEC) has made its run despite a rash of injuries that forced coach Mark Fox to juggle his playing rotation from game to game in a bid to find the right mix.

It's still a work in progress, but the Bulldogs have managed to go 2 1/2 weeks since their last loss, a double-overtime heartbreaker at LSU.

''I don't think we've played anywhere near where we can,'' Fox said after the latest victory, a 70-62 triumph over Vanderbilt on Tuesday night. ''I've got to come up with a little more of a stable rotation. Obviously, the matchups are different in every game, so it's been hard for us to get consistent offensively. But I think we can get better, I really do.''

The Bulldogs lost valuable swingman Kenny Paul Geno to a broken wrist three weeks ago, and it's not known when he'll be able to return. Sophomore guard Juwan Parker is also out with a left Achilles injury.

Even with the setbacks, Georgia has managed to win its last five contests by an average of less than 7 points, its only double-digit victory a 73-61 triumph that ended Florida's 24-game SEC winning streak.

''Lately, we have been finding ways,'' senior forward Nemanja Djurisic said. ''It's always good to win when you don't play as well.''

Especially at Georgia, which has endured struggles on the court since a scandal cost Jim Harrick his job in 2003.

His successor, Dennis Felton, was fired midway through his sixth season, having produced only a single one-and-done NCAA tournament appearance (and that coming after the Bulldogs finished last in the SEC during the 2008 regular season, but pulled off a miraculous run through the tornado-impacted conference tournament).

Fox guided Georgia to the NCAAs his second year on the job, but again the Bulldogs were quickly ousted. They haven't been back since, even with a 12-6 mark in the SEC a year ago, their hopes dashed by the lack of any notable wins outside the conference.

That shouldn't be an issue this year. Georgia has home wins over Colorado and Seton Hall, as well as an impressive road victory at Kansas State. In addition, they gave a respectable showing against No. 3 Gonzaga before losing 88-76.

The Bulldogs are No. 25 in the projected RPI ratings, ahead of five teams - including No. 8 Notre Dame - that made the latest Associated Press poll.

''This team is a little better than some of our teams in the past,'' junior guard Kenny Gaines said. ''We've had some good games, but we couldn't close `em out. It comes down to being mentally tough at the end of the game.''

Georgia travels to South Carolina on Saturday, looking to make it six SEC wins in a row for the first time since 2001. After that, it's a trip to Lexington to face top-ranked Kentucky.

Much like the nearby Atlanta Hawks, the surprise of the NBA season, Georgia doesn't rely on one or two star players. The five starters are averaging between 10.7 and 13.5 points a game. All have led the team in scoring at least twice this season.

''That's the great thing about this group,'' Fox said. ''It really is a team. They enjoy being a team.''

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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