Georgia was supposed to contend for an NCAA Tournament spot in their senior point guard’s final season. Instead, Gaines is steering what feels like a sinking ship midway through the SEC season.
The Bulldogs (11-9, 2-5 SEC) have lost four straight heading into today’s 3 p.m. game against Florida (18-5, 5-3). This game, which will be televised by Lincoln Financial Sports, doesn’t have the feel of a streak-stopper.
The Gators lost all five starters from their back-to-back NCAA title teams of the last two years but have replaced them with a talented roster led by freshman guard Nick Calathes and his 15.7 points per game. Sophomore forward Marreese Speights adds 14.4 points per game.
Georgia, which will be without suspended starter Billy Humphrey, has yet to win an SEC road game this season and hasn’t beaten Florida anywhere since Feb. 17, 2004.
“Every game in the SEC is critical but going on four losses, it’s tough to get the team back rolling,” Gaines acknowledged. “We could lose another game and backtrack and things would get worse.”
They’re already pretty bad. Gaines can’t even make himself say the words “NCAA Tournament” at this point.
“Things are definitely crucial now because we are fighting for our tournament lives, trying to make postseason play,” he said. “We have to take it a game at a time, but it’s definitely crucial.”
Gaines has done a good job of holding up under the strain, head coach Dennis Felton said.
“He almost willed us to win (against Vanderbilt),” Felton said.
Gaines is the Bulldogs’ leading scorer at 13.2 points per game and leading rebounder with 6.2 boards per game. The only thing that has suffered is his assist-to-turnover ratio. He has more turnovers (19) than assists (18) in SEC play this year, but that may be more an indication of the talent surrounding him than his own play.
Gaines knows, as a senior and the point guard, he can’t afford to let out his frustration no matter how depressed he is about the season.
“Things at moments get frustrating, but I can’t let it show,” he said. “I have to find ways to get myself better as well as my team. It’s tough, but this is what I have, and I have to work with it and make the best of the ability of everybody.”
Felton hasn’t had many conversations with Gaines about remaining focused. He takes that as a given now from his four-year starter.
“I’ve had those kind of conversations with Sundiata his whole career because he’s been a cornerstone guy in our program since the day he arrived,” Felton said. “This year, I think he has needed it less because he has matured. He has shown an assertiveness to show that kind of resiliency without needing as much of my help to get him there.”
If Gaines, called “Yata” by his teammates and coaches, begins to fade, there’s no hope for the Bulldogs to rally, he knows.
“I just have to find a way of getting us wanting it and understanding … we need wins so we can be in the postseason.”