Georgia’s ‘good foundation’ not enough to avoid another SEC flameout

NASHVILLE — Two years ago in this building, Georgia’s Sahvir Wheeler said the best was yet to come for Bulldogs men’s basketball. It didn’t seem like an outlandish statement at the time. It just turned out that way later when Wheeler and seven other players abandoned Tom Crean’s program, which quickly collapsed.

Jabri Abdur-Rahim came to Georgia after that exodus. Now he was sounding a similar note as Wheeler after yet another opening loss for the Bulldogs in the SEC Tournament.

“I think a lot of it has to do with culture,” Abdur-Rahim said Wednesday night following Georgia’s loss to LSU. " We have a lot of good people in our locker room, and it translates out on the court.”

You could see that sometimes this season as coach Mike White started rebuilding the ruins left behind by Crean. It seemed that Feb. 11 victory over Kentucky might be the start of a late-season surge. Georgia followed that up with a close victory over last-place LSU.

Then the Bulldogs lost five straight games to close the regular season, and their arena lost a piece of its ceiling. Both the team and its building were crumbling. It will be easy for Georgia to patch up the old arena. Fixing the team will be a harder task.

The SEC Tournament provided a chance for the Bulldogs to finish on a better note. Instead, LSU bested them, 72-67, in the rematch. The Bulldogs closed White’s first season as coach with six straight defeats and the program’s third consecutive loss on the opening day of the league tournament.

“The way we finished the season is obviously not what we were looking to do,” White said. “I do like our approach. I liked our fight today. This team has overcome adversity all season. Tough way to go out, but I feel like we laid a good foundation.”

Georgia’s 16-16 overall record, 6-12 in the SEC, was a big improvement on Crean’s 6-26 and 1-17 marks a year ago. In addition to the win over Kentucky, White’s Bulldogs earned quality victories against Auburn and Mississippi State. Still, the way Georgia ended the season took some of the luster off what came before.

There was no shame in Georgia losing to Alabama, the best team in the SEC. The 49-point margin was the issue. Missouri and Florida beat the Bulldogs by double-digit margins. The Bulldogs closed the regular season with a loss to South Carolina, which finished one spot below them in the SEC.

Georgia’s season ended with a loss to the league’s last-place team, LSU. The Tigers (14-18) earned just their second victory since Dec. 28. They advanced to play Vanderbilt in Thursday’s quarterfinals. The Bulldogs headed home with a disappointing loss that left White in no mood to reflect much on the big picture.

“Right now it’s, ‘My goodness, we had that one,’” White said. “It’s tough. I feel for our seniors. I feel for our fans.”

Problems at both ends contributed to a 12-point halftime deficit for Georgia.

Earning free throws has been a strength for the Bulldogs all season. They couldn’t do that early against LSU because, once ballhandlers slithered into the paint, they tossed up too many wild shots a few feet from the basket. White implored them to get all the way to the rim. The Bulldogs did so only occasionally, with mediocre results.

LSU is a poor offensive team. The Tigers ranked 12th in league play this season with 67.5 points per game. They had 42 points at halftime on Wednesday. The Tigers are good at grabbing offensive rebounds and Georgia is bad at preventing them. LSU leveraged that advantage by collecting 18 of its 42 missed shots and scoring 25 second-chance points.

Said White: “This group never got to a consistent level of defense that puts you in the top half of your league. It’s something we will continue to preach and stress and drill. But we’ve got to get better offensively, too.”

LSU led 42-30 at halftime. The margin was 10 points with 15 minutes to play. Georgia finally responded with a 9-2 run to make the deficit 50-47. The Bulldogs scored three points over the next five minutes but kept the Tigers close by finally keeping them out of the paint and making them shoot from the outside.

“In the second half Georgia changed their coverages up, and we didn’t attack it well,” LSU coach Matt McMahon said.

Abdur-Rahim’s 3-pointer forged a 57-57 tie. He then made two free throws to give the Bulldogs their first lead since they were up 7-6. LSU regained the lead, 63-61, on Adam Miller’s four-point play. The Bulldogs tied the score again on Justice Hill’s three-point play with 1:33 to go.

LSU got the lead back for good on — what else — a put-back basket. KJ Williams missed in the paint and Trae Hannibal’s follow attempt was no good, but Shawn Phillips grabbed the ball as it came off the rim and dunked it. Phillips then blocked Georgia’s Braelen Bridges’ attempt to tie. Bridges corralled the loose ball but missed again while under defensive pressure.

The Tigers put Georgia away from there. Georgia’s late-season slide continued in Nashville, again. The Bulldogs talked about better times ahead, again.