Two dozen members of Georgia’s athletic board, as well as UGA President Jere Morehead and athletic director Greg McGarity, made their way into Stegeman Coliseum after meeting across the street in another campus building Wednesday afternoon. Before they could even get comfortable in their seats, the Bulldogs were trailing South Carolina by 12 points.
It got markedly worse from there. Georgia trailed by 22 points before the teams adjourned for halftime.
That might’ve seemed unsettling to Bulldogs coach Tom Crean. But he couldn’t have known that one of the last things McGarity did before leaving that board meeting was give his men’s basketball coach a vote of confidence.
“I feel great about men’s basketball,” said McGarity, asked about it after the athletic board’s winter meeting. “Certainly, we’d like to win more games, but if you look at the history of Tom’s resurrection of programs … I have got total confidence (in Crean) to turn this thing around. It’s just not going to happen overnight.”
It certainly wasn’t going to happen on this night. That, the Bulldogs validated immediately.
The 75-59 loss to South Carolina was the third in a row for Georgia (12-12, 2-9 SEC), and seventh in eight games dating back to Jan. 15. It also happened to be the ugliest of all.
“Every night in this league it's a fight, and it doesn't matter who it is,” Crean said. “It doesn't matter what night, it doesn't matter what venue, every night is a fight. And when you're not ready for that fight, you're not ready to get involved in that fight, this is the outcome.”
With its fifth win in the last six games, South Carolina improved to 15-9 and 7-4 in league play. A.J. Lawson led the Gamecocks with 20 points.
Georgia played its worse half of basketball in the opening 20 minutes. The Bulldogs failed to make even one 3-pointer, attempting 11. They had almost as many turnovers (8) as they did misses (9) in their first 10 shots. Anthony Edwards didn’t score his first points until the 4:26 mark and all four in the first half came on free throws. He’d finish with 16 points, half coming from the foul line.
Conversely, South Carolina scored at will. Sophomore guard A.J. Lawson scored 11 points in 11 minutes of play. The Gamecocks nearly doubled up Georgia on rebounds, 25-14.
And that was just the first half. The second was just more of the same.
The performance chased most of another near-capacity crowd (8,857) out of the building by the 10-minute mark. Georgia was trailing by 20 around then.
“Discouraged? I don’t really get discouraged. Disappointed though. I’m disappointed,” said Crean, who falls to 4-25 in SEC play in his two seasons as Georgia’s coach. “I want them to play better. I’m disappointed for the fans, I’m disappointed in our effort. You want your guys to be successful. So discouraged? I don’t really go there. Angry? Disappointed? Yeah, those things happen. But we’ve got to overcome it.”
For what it’s worth, South Carolina had a similar experience with Frank Martin. The Gamecocks’ eighth-year coach went 4-14, 5-13 and 6-12 in the SEC in his first three seasons in Columbia. South Carolina finished third the next two seasons and made the Final Four in 2016-17. Bruce Pearl had a similar trek at Auburn with losing seasons in his first three.
“I tell people all the time, my second year at K-State and my second year at South Carolina were my two hardest years,” Martin said. “It’s hard. It’s just hard. ... This league humbles you. But they’ll be fine. This second year, the leadership is just not there. That’s what you’re battling.”
This is not Crean’s first rebuild either. He executed successful turnarounds at Marquette and Indiana. He went 5-31 in Big Ten play his first two seasons with the Hoosiers.
“I don’t ever talk about it publicly but second years are tough,” Crean said. “I’ve lived that. I’m don’t like living that and I’m not saying that I am. We’ve got to get better. But year twos are difficult.”
It would appear Crean’s superiors are aware of that.
“Patience isn’t king on many campuses, but we have learned patience is king as evidenced by baseball,” McGarity said. “(Baseball coach) Scott Stricklin really struggled his first three years; now we have the chance to go to the NCAA championship three years in a row for the first time ever in our program.
“It’s just new turf for us. We’re trying to do something in basketball that’s really different and to have some level of constant success. We’ve had peaks and valleys forever. We’re trying to get there. I’m excited to watch Tom’s kids play. It’s a brand of basketball that’s kind of new for all of us.”
Unfortunately for Georgia men’s basketball, losing is not.
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