Tom Crean still upbeat, but can Georgia even win a game in Nashville?

Georgia men’s basketball is finishing one of the worst SEC campaigns in the history of a program that’s had plenty of bad ones. It’s hard talk about a fresh postseason start for the Bulldogs because they open the league tournament Wednesday against Missouri, which beat them by 25 points a week ago at Stegeman Coliseum. 

That defeat came three days after Georgia’s high point, a 61-55 victory at Florida. (Bad usually is close behind good for these Bulldogs.) Then Georgia lost by 20 points at South Carolina on Saturday. Now the Bulldogs go to Nashville as the 13th seed in a 14-team tournament field. 

The outlook is grim for the Bulldogs. Their coach, Tom Crean, is not. He’s been relentlessly upbeat this season, with one notable and regrettable exception, and he’s sticking to that approach as he looks for some way to squeeze another win from this team. 

On that loss at South Carolina, Crean said: “We had much better fight and competitiveness and resiliency than we had against Missouri and we have to find a way to build on that. I love where our attitudes are at.” 

On whether his first season at Georgia has been more trying than his previous rebuild at Indiana: “I think it’s all in how you view it. I think if you view it as a grind, then it becomes a grind. I think if you view it with energy and looking for those things that can help you get better, (it’s not).” 

Crean said he showed his team the things they were capable of doing better at Missouri. He also gave the Bulldogs a break. They could have practiced Sunday, but Crean decided it was more important for them to have “clear heads and clear minds and a little bit fresher legs.” 

The Bulldogs will need that against Missouri. The Tigers, the No. 12 seed, are not a powerhouse. But the gap between them and Bulldogs is considerable. There’s the head-to-head result and also Missouri’s finish three games ahead of Georgia in the SEC. 

The Bulldogs can draw on that March 2 victory at Florida. They won despite their No. 2 scorer, sophomore Rayshaun Hammonds, playing just five minutes because of a foot injury. Hammonds had season-ending surgery days later. (As I said, bad usually follows good with these Bulldogs.) 

The Bulldogs beat Florida with a dominant performance by sophomore center Nicolas Claxton. Coaches voted Claxton second-team All-SEC (his father, Charles, earned the same honors for Georgia in 1992-93). He’s capable of another performance like the one at Florida, and that should be enough to give the Bulldogs a fighting chance against Mizzou this time. 

Crean often says he wants to see grit from his team. He didn’t see it when the Bulldogs lost to Ole Miss in February, with Georgia lettermen watching at Stegeman. Crean’s positive persona cracked as he blamed himself for the state of the team because “I’m the one who decided to keep these guys.” 

The implication was that Crean regretted not running off some of the players he inherited from Mark Fox. Crean later apologized for the remarks, to his team in private and publicly via media. But this was one case in which some good came after the bad for Georgia. 

A couple of days later Crean got a commitment from one of the nation’s better recruits, Anthony Edwards of Holy Spirit Preparatory School. Then the Bulldogs were better over the next six games. 

They sagged late in the first half at Texas A&M, but otherwise hung tough. Georgia had a chance to beat regular-season champion LSU late but couldn’t. It lost by one point to Mississippi State, the No. 6 tournament seed. 

Georgia lost the rematch at Ole Miss (No. 7 seed) by two after missing a 3-point try at the buzzer. The Bulldogs lost by three to Auburn (No. 5) after the Tigers made a tough 3-pointer following two blocked shots by Georgia during that possession (there’s the bad following the good again). 

Those were all losses for Georgia. They also were evidence that the Bulldogs hadn’t quit on Crean. Then came the breakthrough at Florida. If the closing losses to Missouri and South Carolina were signs that they are wearing down, then that spirited stretch of play hints at what the Bulldogs can do. 

The Bulldogs won’t salvage their season in Nashville. They can beat Missouri. Under the circumstances, that would be something.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 

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