Last October, after Georgia once again was picked to finish last in the Southeastern Conference's East Division, first-year coach Mark Fox answered a question about rebuilding with unflappable confidence.
"What a story it would be," Fox said with a smile, "if we could prove everyone wrong."
Georgia (9-8, 1-3 SEC East) still enters tonight's matchup with Florida at the O'Connell Center in last place in the SEC East. But of late, the Bulldogs have shown signs of turning a positive corner under the optimistic Fox.
After losing its previous three SEC games by a combined 15 points, Georgia upset then-No. 8 Tennessee 78-63 at home last Saturday for its first league win. It was Georgia's second win against a ranked opponent in less than three weeks. On Jan. 5, Georgia beat No. 22 Georgia Tech 73-66.
"I've seen this enough in our league where there is a coaching change and there are a lot of players from a previous coaching staff and it takes time, I think, for players to learn and understand a system and maybe get accustomed and adjusted to a new coach," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "Mark I think has done a great job with this team. I definitely don't think their record is indicative of how they've played since SEC play has started."
Florida (14-5, 3-2 SEC) has won three straight since its 0-2 SEC start. But the Gators needed a 3-pointer from Chandler Parsons at the buzzer to beat South Carolina and some clutch rebounds in the final five minutes to win at Arkansas.
"We're not going to underestimate Georgia," Parsons said. "They are a great team. Everyone saw what they just did to Tennessee."
Sophomore point guard Erving Walker said Georgia had his attention even before the Bulldogs beat Tennessee last Saturday.
"I already thought they were pretty good," Walker said. "I had seen them beat Georgia Tech. I've seen them beat Illinois. And them I've seen them play Kentucky really close and they almost beat Ole Miss. They are a different team from last year."
Georgia's improved play has centered around a pair of sophomores. Sophomore forward Trey Thompkins ranks fifth in the SEC in scoring (16.9 ppg) and fifth in rebounding (8.1 rpg). For a big man, the 6-foot-10 Thompkins also has the ability to a step away and make 3-pointers. He's made 12 of 27 (44.4 percent) from 3-point range this season.
An even bigger surprise for Georgia has been the play of sophomore swingman Travis Leslie, who has taken a Joakim Noah-like leap in his second season on campus. After struggling with inconsistency and injuries in scoring just 6.3 points per game as a freshman, Leslie is second on Georgia in scoring at 13.9 points per game.
"He has really made a huge jump from his freshman year to his sophomore year and has turned out to be one of the better wing players in our league," Donovan said.
The 6-foot-4 Leslie gets his points taking the ball to the basket. He's only attempted four 3-pointers this season, while getting to the free-throw line 73 times.
"We saw him last year in warm-ups throwing it down," Walker said. "We saw him dunk on (Kentucky center) DeMarcus Cousins, so we know he's an athlete. We respect him."
Florida overcame 41.5 percent shooting from the floor and some careless second-half turnovers to beat South Carolina. The Gators had a second-half scoreless stretch against the Gamecocks that lasted for more than five minutes.
"If Chandler's shot hadn't gone in against South Carolina, the mistakes we made in that game would be a lot more magnified," Donovan said. "We did make some poor choices and we need to get better at them. The maturity part, which we'll see today, is if they can put that excitement aside and find a way to get better from it."