Neither Georgia nor Anthony Edwards may have seemed particularly impressive as the Bulldogs have stumbled out to a 1-4 start in SEC play. But don’t tell that to Kentucky’s John Calipari, who gushed about the team the No. 10 Wildcats defeated 89-79 Tuesday night at Rupp Arena.
“Tom’s done a great job,” Calipari said of Georgia’s second-year coach Tom Crean. “They’re going to win games. I just told their team as we walked off, ‘you’re as good as anybody we’ve played. Go win some games.’ …Their start was ridiculous. Now let’s see where they go. Tom’s terrific and I think they’ll be fine. At this point, I want them to beat everybody.”
The Bulldogs would settle for at least two in a row — and soon. The loss to the Wildcats was their fourth in the last five games — and 14th in a row to Kentucky overall.
But as Calipari pointed out, Georgia’s league schedule has been a bit front-loaded. This was the second time they’ve played Kentucky (14-4, 5-1 SEC) and they’ve also played then-No. 5-ranked Auburn and Mississippi State on the road.
Georgia (11-7) gets three of the next five at home, including Saturday’s 5:30 p.m. game against Ole Miss (9-8, 0-4).
The Bulldogs insist they'll be no less confident as they move into the next stretch of the season.
“We’ve just got to continue to learn,” Crean said. “For where we're at youth wise, as many new guys as we have and starting three freshmen in here, we've got to go through some things so we can grow into some things. That's how I see my team right now.”
Kentucky steps out of the conference Saturday with a road trip to Texas Tech, then comes home to face Vanderbilt before kicking off February at Auburn.
Georgia’s cause would be helped if Edwards could ever put two halves together again. Once again, the star freshman struggled in the opening half, going scoreless for the first time all year on 0-for-5 shooting, 0-for-2 from 3-point range. He rallied to score 16 points in the second half, but also fouled out and finished with five turnovers and just one rebound.
“I'm guessing the scouting report was to deny me the ball and not really let me touch it,” Edwards said. “When I did touch, I was usually double-teamed. So I was trying to get the ball out of my hands in a hurry. I couldn't really do anything.”
Edwards, a 6-5 guard from Atlanta, is projected as an NBA lottery pick. Calipari warned people who want to write off him as “overrated” not to be too hasty.
“It’s hard for young guys, especially when everybody’s paying special attention to him,” Calipari said of the nation’s leading-scoring freshman (19 points per game). “Now all the sudden, every pick-and-roll, they hold him a lot longer. Every drive, they leave their men to go get him. So, it’s like he’s playing (against) a box-and-one all night, and he still gets baskets. That tells you how good he is.”
The Bulldogs actually had Kentucky worried a few times Tuesday. They led twice in the first half and were within a single bucket twice in the second half. But every time Georgia would get close the Wildcats would answer with another run. Kentucky led by as many as 16 points in the second half, but the majority of the game was contested within a single-digit margin.
Georgia sophomore Tye Fagan was able to pick up some of Edwards' slack in the first half. The 6-3 guard scored 12 of his 14 points — the second-most in his career — in the first half. Also, freshman Toumani Camara scored all 10 of his points in the first half as Georgia made a brief charge shortly before halftime.
Rayshaun Hammonds had 16 points and eight rebounds for the Bulldogs.
Atlanta native and one-time UGA commit Ashton Hagans led the Wildcats with a career-high 23 points. That's the second time Hagans has scored 23, the other time also coming against Georgia. He has averaged 19.7 points against the Bulldogs.
Twice in the second half, Georgia got to within three points, the second time 57-54 at 12:36 on a high-arcing Edwards jump shot.
But that was followed in short succession by two Edwards turnovers and one by Hammonds, and Kentucky converted all three into points to pull away again.
Crean said the Bulldogs are not despondent or disillusioned by the recent struggles.
“There's no moral victory, right? That's not what I'm saying here. But we brought a very young team into this environment and battled,” he said. “This is an incredible environment, and for a team to come in here and battle like that. ... We're growing up. It's a hard league to grow up in and to win in, but I'm not worried about morale.”
Said Edwards: “We've got a great team. I've got great teammates beside me and we're going to keep fighting and keep working to get better.”