Georgia Bulldogs hope to close the deal vs. South Carolina

VIDEO: Georgia basketball coach Tom Crean speaks about his team prior to Wednesday's game against South Carolina. Video By Chip Towers.

Wednesday night is Nic Claxton bobblehead night at Stegeman Coliseum. The Georgia Bulldogs would much rather have the real Claxton.

Claxton, who would have been a junior on this team, is instead making his way in the NBA. That means Georgia once again will have to play an SEC opponent without a bona fide “rim protector.”

That has been a problem for the Bulldogs all season, no more glaringly than in the last outing, Saturday against Alabama. The Crimson Tide scored dozens of point-blank baskets off dribble-drives before finally getting the best of the Bulldogs, 105-102 in overtime.

That loss left Georgia in a bit of a desperate situation as it gets set to host South Carolina (14-9, 6-4 SEC) in Wednesday’s 6:30 p.m. game (SEC Network). The Bulldogs (12-11, 2-8) remain 10-3 at home this season, and another near-capacity crowd is expected to snap up those Claxton bobbleheads. But the Bulldogs have to find a way to win or render this as another write-off season toward what seems like a perpetual rebuild.

“We are so close in these games,” Georgia coach Tom Crean said, practically wincing at the mention. “In (the last) three losses, depending on how we got to that point, there were numerous chances to win the game. That’s what we have to understand. We are very, very close.”

The Bulldogs held significant second-half leads in those past three games: Missouri by 20, Florida by 22 and Alabama by 12. They’ve simply been unable to sustain.

The biggest issue is on defense. Georgia rank 13th in the SEC in points allowed (75.1 pg) and field-goal percentage defense (.450) and 12th in rebounding (36.5).

A lot of those issues can be traced to missing a guy like Claxton, an athletic 6-foot-11 player who led the SEC in blocked shots and deflections last season.

The Bulldogs already were short-handed to that end when they gave walking papers to 6-foot-9 sophomore Amanze Ngumezi in December. Since then, Georgia has only 6-9 junior Rayshaun Hammonds and 6-8 freshman Toumani Camara doing much in the way of helping. Shot-blocking and rebounding does not come naturally to either player, though they’re doing their best.

“I’ll play whatever position they put me at; I’ve been doing that all my life,” said the 235-pound Hammonds, who was a 4-star prospect out of Norcross. “Whatever Coach needs me to do, I’ll play that position. I’m built for it. I don’t complain about it. I love playing down there.”

Hammonds has been holding his own. He leads the team with 7.3 rebounds per game and has 12 blocks, the same as 6-5 freshman Anthony Edwards. Camara leads the Bulldogs with 14 blocked shots, but trails three other players on the team with 4.2 rebounds per game.

“What hurts us more than anything else is how we guard the dribble,” Crean said. “We’ve got to guard the dribble better. We have to be in a better position of help defensively. We’ve got to take more of an individual pride, commitment and grit.”

Perhaps the Bulldogs can take some notes from the Gamecocks. South Carolina makes its living playing defense and rebounding. The Gamecocks lead the SEC in field-goal percentage defense, at .383.

“They’re very physical, and they make it tough for you to run your half-court offense with the denials and the way they get into the bodies of the screeners,” said Crean, whose team fell victim to that style of play 66-46 last year in Columbia. “They know what they want to do: A lot of high-low, they’re very quick in the back court, so they can play inside out, they can play outside-in, they’ll challenge us off the dribble.”

Georgia has shown it can get the rim, too, especially with the recent emergence of freshman Sahvir Wheeler. The 5-10 point guard drove his way to a career-high 24 points and added eight assists against Alabama and has averaged 20 points and six assists in the past two games.

On Saturday, Wheeler became the first Georgia freshman to reach 100 assists in a season since Dustin Ware in 2009. He has 100 now, with at least nine games to go, including the SEC tournament.

Wheeler hopes there’s more games than that ahead and believes there can be.

“We’re doing our best,” Wheeler said. “The ‘young’ excuse, there’s no more need for that. We can’t say that anymore. In the SEC, nobody cares about how old or young you are. We just have to keep doing our best.”