If the template holds to form, here’s what’s going to happen when Georgia faces No. 10 Kentucky in Rupp Arena Tuesday night: The Bulldogs will emerge from the opening tip competitive, but as the half wears on and the battle boils down to intangibles such as hustle and mental toughness, they will begin to wilt.
The Bulldogs will seek to escape from that pattern Tuesday against the Wildcats (13-4, 4-1). Eventually finding a solution could determine whether or not they’re postseason participants this year.
“We just haven’t competed the way we need to,” Georgia coach Tom Crean said Monday before the Bulldogs left for Lexington. “That’s an internal thing and we just have to take care of it. We just have to come into practice and identify (shortcomings), isolate and get those things handled. We’ve just got to understand whether we’re at home or on the road, we’ve got to play a physical style of game.”
Georgia’s Anthony Edwards is the nation’s top-scoring freshman at 19.1 points per game and the only first-year player currently ranked among the top-50 scorers in Division I hoops. So, he is obviously on the top line of every opponents’ scouting report.
To date, Edwards hasn’t responded particularly well to that distinction. In the first halves at Auburn and Starkville, Edwards shot a combined 18.2 percent from the field (2 for 11), including 0-for-7 from 3-point range.
In both games, Edwards got it going in the second half and was able match his scoring average by the final horn. But by the time he did, his team was already buried under insurmountable double-digit deficits.
If the Bulldogs are going to be successful, the 6-foot-5 Edwards has to be productive earlier in the game.
“He’s got to get better of getting rid of the guy that’s in front of him,” Crean said. “When he just dribbles and the guy stays in front of you, four other defenders are there to help. (He’s) got to get downhill, get around them and start to create, whether it’s off the initial drive or off a ball-screen or off a reversal, whatever it is. He’s a confident shot-maker, but he’s got to get more escapability from the defense.”
Edwards is not alone in deficiencies. The Bulldogs are getting out-muscled in most of the intangible areas of the game against quality opponents. They were out-rebounded by Mississippi State 40-22 and out-scored 15-4 off turnovers versus Auburn. Combined, they were short-sided in both games 28-14 on second-chance points.
These all are considered “hustle stats,” areas where will is often a more important component than skill.
“We just didn’t give a lot of resistance the other night,” Crean said of the Starkville trip. “That’s where we’ve got to be better. Mature teams don’t need their offense to fuel them, but that’s a hard thing to get in college basketball these days.”
Georgia is anything but mature. It competes with 10 newcomers, nine of them freshmen.
The group held up well enough in the first meeting with Kentucky. Georgia actually led the Wildcats by nine in the first half and by seven halftime. But the Bulldogs were out-scored 47-32 in the second half on the way to a 78-69 loss.
Georgia must prove more resilient throughout this time.
“We need to have somebody stem the tide when it’s not going well,” Crean said. “That’s up for grabs right now on our team.”
In the Dogs’ defense, it’s coming through an extremely challenging stretch. Their second matchup against Kentucky in two weeks completes a six-game stretch against teams that played in the NCAA Tournament last year. Georgia’s 2-3 in those games.
Lexington is not generally a place the Bulldogs go to get well. They’re 5-61 all-time in Big Blue Country.
But right now, just being competitive might be considered a victory.
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