The question was inevitable. So was Tom Crean’s answer, really.
Asked about blowing 20-point, second-half leads in the past two road games, Georgia’s second-year coach deadpanned.
“Well, we got up,” he said.
Crean wasn’t laughing or even smiling when he answered. Better than anybody else involved, he knows what a serious problem the Bulldogs have and how important it is to get it fixed here at the halfway point of conference play.
But he really is right. The Bulldogs have the talent, skill and ability to build 20-point margins on the road -- 22 points in the case of the last second-half lead, against Florida on Wednesday – but also the deficiencies to give it all back and then some in less than a half of play.
Crean and his staff, which includes two former head coaches, have been huddling on it overtime the past couple of weeks. In the end, their skull sessions only reinforced real-time observation and statistical study.
Georgia’s not tough on defense -- or in any other area, really.
“We showed that we could get in those situations; we just got to do a better job of closing,” Crean said before the Bulldogs’ practice Friday. “What it comes down to really is on-the-ball defense more than anything else. … That’s what we have to get better at. We've got to guard the ball, whether it's a switching situation, man, zone, whatever it is. We have to do a much better job of guarding the ball and keep it out of the paint, the way that it's getting in there.”
The Bulldogs (12-10, 2-7 SEC) are home Saturday against Alabama (12-10, 4-5), and they’ve been able to sustain when they’ve managed 20-point leads at Stegeman Coliseum. But four of the final seven games this season are on the road. And, home or away, it’s paramount that Georgia doesn’t let blown leads become a thing.
“A couple lapses on defense can gain confidence for the other team,” senior guard Donnell Gresham said. “I think we’ve just got to focus and settle in throughout the whole game, not just the first half or a few minutes, but the whole 40 minutes.”
Georgia led Florida 52-30 with 15:30 remaining in the game. But then Gators went on an extended 34-5 run and eventually went ahead by 10. UGA would wake up to get back within two, but Florida pulled away again at the end for an 81-75 victory.
Fab-freshman Anthony Edwards had 32 points, but went scoreless during a 13-minute stretch while the Gators were making their charge. Florida’s Andrew Nembhard scored 19 of his 25 points in the second half and 14 of his team’s last 17 in the game.
“We lost touch with a lot of their shooters at crucial moments, and that kind of got their run going,” senior Jordan Harris said. “I think they played well offensively; I think they ran their stuff well. There’s definitely a lot we can improve on defense, but we definitely lost their shooters in that game.”
Georgia was particularly vulnerable to dribble penetration against the Gators, and that will have Alabama licking its chops. The Crimson Tide have scored an SEC-high 82 points per game, thanks in large part to 6-foot-3 guard Kira Lewis. He probably is the quickest player in the SEC with the ball and comes in averaging 16.5 points per game, most coming off the drive.
That’s a tough matchup for Georgia’s diminutive point guard Sahvir Wheeler, who’s generously listed at 5-10. That may mean more minutes for the 6-3 Gresham, who has seen his playing time diminish greatly with Wheeler’s offensive emergence. He’s played a total of 20 minutes in the past two games.
Also, junior Rayshaun Hammonds has to escape whatever funk has entangled him. While his offensive regression has been most apparent while averaging 4.2 points in the past four games (8-for-28 shooting, 2-for-12 from 3), the 6-9 junior is giving the Bulldogs nothing on defense. He has one block and two steals in that same span while averaging only 4.2 rebounds. Hammonds had four double-doubles earlier in the season; he’s had none in SEC play.
“He just has to go a little bit harder,” Crean said. “He’s got to be more aggressive. It’s got to be in his first two steps, and he has to escape the block-out a little better. You have to get to the glass.”
Edwards has to find a way to stay engaged longer as well. He leads the SEC in scoring with 19.9 points per game -- more than two points a game more than any freshman in the country – but twice now has experienced long second-half droughts. That may or may not have to do with playing all but two minutes of the past three games. Zone defenses have been a quandary as well.
“Let’s attack and go,” Crean said. “I don’t think he cut as much. He and his offense are a product of the other guys cutting, as well. When you have five guys moving, which we have to have to be successful, that’s where a lot of his points come from. He may get it off a matchup; he may get it off a one-on-one; but he’s getting it because everybody else is in movement. After watching the film, that’s the biggest thing.”
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