Georgia looking to lock down on defense vs. No. 20 Missouri

Georgia's P.J. Horne (24), here defending Alabama's Jahvon Quinerly, and the Bulldogs played poor perimeter defense in a 33-point loss to the Crimson Tide this past Saturday in Tuscaloosa. (Photo from UA Athletics) 
Photo by Crimson Tide Photos
Georgia's P.J. Horne (24), here defending Alabama's Jahvon Quinerly, and the Bulldogs played poor perimeter defense in a 33-point loss to the Crimson Tide this past Saturday in Tuscaloosa. (Photo from UA Athletics) Photo by Crimson Tide Photos

Credit: Crimson Tide Photos / UA Athletics

Credit: Crimson Tide Photos / UA Athletics

ATHENS – Coming off a 33-point loss to Alabama, its second in a row, one would think Georgia’s confidence would be shattered into tiny little pieces. Apparently, that’s not the case.

“Morale is still high; guys still have a positive attitude,” sophomore guard Jaxon Etter said Monday. “We’re not too worried. We’re not worried at all.”

Maybe not, but the Bulldogs most assuredly need to play much better to avoid a third straight loss as they face their third consecutive ranked team on Tuesday night (7 p.m., SECN). No. 20 Missouri (13-5, 6-5 SEC) arrives at Stegeman Coliseum without one of its top players and looking to avoid a third straight loss itself.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s situation is desperate when it comes to postseason goals and aspirations. The Bulldogs (12-8, 5-8) need to win to log an all-important Quadrant 1 victory but more importantly to avoid taking a three-game losing streak on the road to Florida on Saturday.

The ever-optimistic Tom Crean was incredulous when asked Monday if his team needed a morale boost.

“Why would it?” asked the Bulldogs’ third-year coach. “We’re in the middle of a season. We just won three in a row; we just won five out of seven before that. There’s absolutely no reason for morale to drop.”

Of the 115-82 loss to Alabama last Saturday, Crean said: “We didn’t play well. What I’m going to remind them today is it was a 12- or 14-point game in the second half, much of the game still hanging in the balance. We miss an open 3, we miss a layup, we turn it over in the middle of the floor and they scored on all three of those possessions. That is sometimes what the game comes down to.”

More often than not, it comes down to Georgia’s ability to defend – or inability to, depending on how one chooses to look at it. The Bulldogs’ opponents are shooting a hardy 46 percent against them, including 34 percent from 3-point range. It’s even higher in conference play, at 48 and 38 percent, respectively.

That was exaggerated even more in the loss at Bama. The Crimson Tide shot 64% from the field and 60% from 3-point range with 18 treys made. That followed a loss to Tennessee in which the Bulldogs found themselves trailing by 18 in the first half. The Vols forged that lead mainly by going 8-for-15 (53.3%) from 3 range in the first half.

Georgia is a small team by SEC standards, but generally that has proven more of a liability on the interior rather than beyond the arc. Why they’re suddenly defending poorly on the perimeter is a big question.

“The players, the coaches, all of us are still trying to come up with that answer,” Etter said. “… It’s been very frustrating. We rely on being able to stop the ball. When we can’t do that, we fall apart, especially in the SEC where everybody can shoot.”

The Bulldogs definitely need to buckle down Tuesday because two of the better guards in the league will be accompanying the Tigers to Stegeman Coliseum. Junior Xavier Pinson and redshirt senior Dru Smith are two of the most experienced guards in the SEC and they happen to be among the league leaders from 3-point range at 35 and 40 percent, respectively.

Etter has been one of Georgia’s answers. The 6-foot-4 walkon guard from Woodstock has played 15, 19 and 20 minutes in the last three games as a defensive stalwart. He also has scored 21 points in that span.

The Bulldogs are catching somewhat of a break on Tuesday as Missouri’s star forward Jeremy Tilmon is missing the game to deal with a personal situation. The 6-10, 260-pound senior from St. Louis, Ill., is averaging 12.8 points and 7.8 rebounds a game and has 23 blocked shots.

But unless Georgia can stop the barrage from beyond the arc, it’s not going to matter.

“It’s a matter of locking in and it starts with transition defense,” Crean said. “A lot of the time, it’s stopping the ball, but then getting your people help.”

The Bulldogs are in the midst of their most challenging stretch of the season. Following a COVID-caused schedule change last week that sent it to Tennessee, Georgia will have played five teams in a row that either are ranked or were recently ranked by the time LSU visits on Feb. 23. Getting these defensive liabilities shored up and soon is a priority or it could be a disastrous finish.

But Crean says it’s just as important that the Bulldogs stay positive.

“Yesterday’s practice was very much a ‘get-better practice,’” Crean said. “It wasn’t about burying of them or three hours of total physicality. No, we come to work every day, we isolate our skills, we want to get better, we don’t want to lose confidence. We have a lot of things that we can do.”

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