'We haven't done anything': The significance and irrelevance of Georgia in the AP poll

Lady Bulldogs earned the No. 22 spot in the AP poll and are ranked for the first time since 2018.

ATHENS, Ga. — Joni Taylor enjoys finding methods to motivate her players. It’s probably a common coaching tactic across any sport and at all levels, but Taylor jumps at every opportunity to soak in any fragment of information that could propel her team through the grind of a basketball season.

Her obvious source is the internet and the loads of information it offers. Any motivational phrase, quote, video, song or verse in scripture is getting stashed away. If it’s something on television, it’ll be paused, recorded and digested for future use. Taylor has her old-school methods, too, like earmarking and highlighting meaningful words in books that might spark her interest.

“I hear it everywhere,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s notes feature on her iPhone becomes Georgia’s treasure chest full of gold bits. They’re later used for any type of team gathering, pre-game huddle or film session. Taylor used some to send her players throughout the Covid-19 shutdown in a group text, too.

The perspective offered by Taylor and her long list of handy-dandy resources has become vital to Georgia over recent weeks. The noise has started to amplify. There’s attention, albeit welcomed, around a program that fell out of the prominent discussion over recent seasons. Many have become aware, and there’s potential for distraction.

Georgia had come off of a thrilling 67-66 win over a ranked Tennessee team last Thursday, and the interest from those outside of the program — national media, local reporters who don’t consistently cover the team and casual fans — began to increase and Taylor sensed it. Before Saturday’s game against Ole Miss, the usual motivational chat included words attributed to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“The wolf on the hill is not as hungry as the wolf climbing the hill,” the quote reads.

Taylor swapped out a hill for a mountain to analogize Georgia’s climb through a 2020-21 season in which it has started 12-1. The connection to basketball is rather simple: There’s more to do.

“We haven't done anything. What have we done?” Taylor said. “Won a game or two here and there? We're still climbing the mountain.”

Georgia walked out of Stegeman Coliseum on Sunday and collected its fourth-consecutive victory in conference play over Ole Miss. Less than 24 hours later, the recognition came. Georgia was ranked 22nd in the Associated Press (AP) Top 25 poll.

A selected group of media members ranked the Lady Bulldogs for the first time since the 2018-19 preseason poll, in which they were ranked 13th.

It took nine weeks for Georgia to receive its recognition in the poll. The Lady Bulldogs started with an 8-0 record in non-conference play. They received attention by some voters, but it didn’t prove enough to crack the poll, despite victories over Power Five programs in Georgia Tech and Oklahoma. It took the team’s first win over a ranked program to enter the stage.

For reference, in the 2017-18 season, Georgia didn’t enter the AP Top 25 until Jan. 22 when it had a 17-2 record and beat a ranked Texas A&M team on the road.

Georgia also entered the coaches’ poll at No. 23 on Tuesday.

“(Our start) showed we're able to play with the best teams,” point guard Gabby Connally said. “We want to be considered one of the best teams.”

A spot in the polls serves as a glimpse into the program’s vision. It provides an example into the standards set by the Georgia women’s basketball program. Taylor said it doesn’t take long to be reminded of the program’s prestigious history when walking into Stegeman Coliseum. A myriad of banners, trophies, medals and rings are exhibited around every corner.

Georgia has been long-accustomed to its spot as a fixture in the rankings. Those translated into NCAA tournaments and seasons of championship contention. Over recent seasons, a coaching transition from a legendary coach in Andy Landers to the Taylor era, the consistency temporarily faded as multiple recruiting cycles had to fall into place and the core objectives were realized.

For those reasons, Georgia hopes it has re-established its place. Taylor knows it’s where the program belongs. A return to the polls carries weight for the generations of teams who experienced a ranking lead to long-term success.

“You get ranked and it means someone has seen what you're doing. They're acknowledging us and that's great,” Taylor said. “It means we are competing, playing well and this team is doing what it is capable of.”

The tradition is understood. But for the current group of Lady Bulldogs, a number next to its name means “absolutely nothing,” Taylor said, and the players echoed a similar sentiment. The approach stems from Georgia knowing what other observers have realized well before it found its name in the polls.

Georgia knew the potential to have an emergent season and be a factor in the SEC prior to the season. Taylor didn’t shy away from it either, because the coaching staff knew what a deep roster, four starters and a 12-deep rotation could offer. In fact, Taylor saw it coming a season ago when Georgia wrapped up a less-than-stellar season and she said there were “no excuses” with the pieces in place.

From the opening tip on Nov. 25, Georgia saw it in action. Jenna Staiti, a 6-foot-4 center, maintained dominant play. There was no drop-off from the starting lineups to reserves as Javyn Nicholson, Jordan Isaacs and the supporting cast came to light. The two guard newcomers, Mikayla Coombs and Sarah Ashlee Barker, have provided the spark and allowed Georgia to find its energy through a blazing-hot start. The team’s only blemish was a seven-point home loss to a ranked Mississippi State team.

Georgia knew it had a turnaround story in the works. Nearly two months later, so has everyone else.

“It's nice to see how this team is and get some recognition. I do not think we are done yet,” Staiti said. “A ranking doesn't show we're done. We still have a lot to prove and show people.”

More valuable than the media rankings are the NCAA tournament benchmarks for Georgia. The Lady Bulldogs’ strength of schedule and quality wins gives them a NCAA Efficiency Tool (NET) ranking of 13th. That metric is used to seed teams when the tournament begins in March.

The bracket projections have Georgia in a favorable spot, too. ESPN’s Charlie Creme has Georgia as a No. 4 seed in his latest projection as of Jan. 19. The evaluation of where the future might lead for Georgia holds more weight, but that doesn’t mean the team is focused on it.

Georgia has opened with a 4-1 record in the SEC, arguably the toughest league in women’s college basketball this season with eight teams projected into the NCAA tournament, seven ranked programs and 10 within the top-50 of the NET rankings.

The Lady Bulldogs are readying for a tough stretch in which Taylor said you can “pick any game” for a challenge — at South Carolina, vs. Arkansas, vs. LSU, at Texas A&M and at Alabama.

“As soon as you start looking to the left or the right, you start to lose focus of what is going on,” Taylor said. “We're going to continue to do what we're doing, and that's to get better every single game.”

Georgia has given reason for more people to pay attention. But the program is performing as it thought it would, whether the recognition came or not.

The proverbial mountain has 10 regular-season games remaining on it. Georgia has to keep climbing it, because goals extend beyond a ranking.

“We’re not going to be satisfied,” Connally said.