Tom Crean’s first season as Georgia basketball coach had barely ended when he was asked for his thoughts about the second. That’s how it goes when your team wins two SEC games, then loses on the first day of the league tournament.
The Bulldogs put up a better fight against Missouri, who pushed them around a week ago at Stegeman Coliseum. Still, their season was finished after this 71-62 defeat. Time to look forward to something better.
Crean wasn’t ready to go there.
“I did not want it to end,” he said. “I've loved working with them. Unfortunately, I'm not really mentally prepared to talk about the future. I know we have one. I know there is one.”
There is, and it’s hopeful. Much of that is because the country’s top recruit, Anthony Edwards, is on the way. But one good player, especially a freshman, does not make for a good team. You need more than that.
Good thing for the Bulldogs is they already have more than that. Edwards will play alongside center Nicolas Claxton, a junior-to-be. Against Missouri Claxton showed that, with more polish, he could be the best player in the SEC next season.
Georgia got going when Claxton did. The Bulldogs sagged when he got in foul trouble after halftime. They had no chance to come back once he fouled out.
Claxton finished with 11 points, six rebounds and six blocked shots in 30 minutes. They might have won if Claxton had been better at one thing: he missed 6 of 13 free-throw attempts.
“We didn't do enough to get the job done, to get the win,” Claxton said. “That's what we wanted at the end of the day. Free throws . . . they were huge. That's something I really need to work on in the off-season.”
Claxton also must get stronger, improve his jump shot and produce more consistently. Chances are he will get much better. He turns 20 years old next month.
If Claxton unlocks his potential, the Bulldogs will have two good NBA prospects on the court in 2019-20. When Crean had a team like that at Indiana, the Hoosiers played on the NCAA tournament’s second weekend in consecutive seasons.
Already, Claxton is good. He rebounds and blocks shots. He’s a bouncy, smooth athlete. It was clear the Tigers believed beating up on Claxton is the best way to beat Georgia.
Sometimes as many as three Tigers swarmed Claxton in the paint. They bumped, grabbed, pushed and pulled him. It worked. Claxton couldn’t impact the game.
Finally, he got tired of the harassment.
“Staying aggressive, not letting any of that get to my head,” he said.
Claxton also played smarter. He started catching the ball a bit outside of the lane, in places where the Tigers couldn’t collapse, before immediately going hard to the hole. The Tigers would have to foul Claxton, or he would dominate at the rim.
The Tigers went with hacking. Claxton earned nine free-throw attempts in the first half. He made just five, but he’d established that if Missouri wanted the rough stuff he was game.
Those freebies got Claxton going. A score on a sweet spin move along the left baseline put Georgia ahead 25-24, its first lead in 11 minutes. Another spinning score by Claxton, this time in the lane, made Georgia’s advantage 27-24.
Claxton’s teammates came along with him. Amanze Ngumezi made a 3-pointer, Jordan Harris made another and now Georgia led by seven. The Bulldogs led 34-32 at halftime. They scored 39 points in the first meeting against Mizzou and lost by 25.
Mizzou also felt Claxton at the other end of the court. Early in the game Tigers guards Jordan Geist and Xavier Pinson isolated their defender, barged into the lane and pivoted before tossing in baskets. Claxton was nowhere around.
Then, suddenly, Claxton was everywhere. Now when Mizzou’s guards worked their way to the basket they found Claxton’s long frame waiting. He blocked five shots before halftime.
Claxton didn’t have as much of an impact in the second half. The fouls didn’t help.
He earned his third with 16:09 to play and Georgia down by two points. Crean left Claxton in the game. Claxton’s fourth foul came with 9:22 to go and Georgia trailing 47-43. Claxton went to the bench.
When he returned, Georgia was behind 52-45 with eight minutes to go. He fouled out with the Bulldogs down 60-51 and 2:58 to play. Once Claxton faded, so did Georgia.
“I was ready to play in the first half,” Claxton said. “Second half was a different story.”
Georgia’s miserable season could have ended better than 11-21. In February they lost four straight games by a combined nine points to opponents pointed to the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs beat another probable tourney team, Florida, before losing their final three games.
At least Georgia pushed back against Mizzou this time.
“We played hard,” Harris said after scoring a collegiate-high 26 points. “None of us wanted to stop playing basketball today. Coach definitely didn't want to stop coaching us today. At this point, man, we got to move on and just look forward to the future.”
It’s brighter not just because the Bulldogs have Edwards coming, but because Claxton already is here.
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