The Georgia men’s basketball team, which got off to its best start since the 1982-83 Final Four season, is suddenly on the slide.
On the heels of a blowout loss Saturday at Arkansas, the Bulldogs are 0-3 in the SEC — after opening the season 7-0 — and badly in need of a victory Wednesday when they host Auburn, also in search of its first SEC win. The 7 p.m. game is set for an SEC Network broadcast.
The three-game losing streak to open conference play began with two competitive losses to Mississippi State (83-73) and LSU (94-92), but the Arkansas loss had a different narrative. Close at halftime, the game skidded into a 99-69 Georgia loss, and forced head coach Tom Crean to answer questions about his team’s hopes of bouncing back and pushing toward an NCAA Tournament bid.
“I can’t go to the big picture. I really can’t because the season just started,” Crean said after the Arkansas loss. “We would have played our 10th game on December 22 last year, after we got back from Arizona State. I mean the second half was tough. The first half we were right where we needed to be, but in the second half the wheels came off of this thing and we had nobody that wanted to get greasy and put the wheels back on, on the floor. I am just more concerned right now that we bounce back from this and that we get ready for Auburn.”
The task now is an Auburn team equally hungry for an SEC win after an 0-4 start, which has dropped Bruce Pearl’s team to 6-6 overall. However, the Tigers head to Athens with some positive momentum despite a 94-90 loss this past Saturday to rival Alabama.
Freshman point guard Sharife Cooper, a consensus top-25 national recruit, made his debut in the loss to Alabama after spending the first part of the season awaiting his eligibility clearance by the NCAA. The former McEachern star didn’t disappoint in his first college action with a game-high 26 points and a team-high nine assists.
His return gives Auburn what it has lacked all season, an experienced ball-handler at point guard.
“You could tell how hard Sharife has worked to stay right and stay ready and what a dynamic player he is,” Pearl said after the game. “We obviously have been working to try and build the program around him the last couple years knowing he would be coming in. It’s great to have him back.”
The Tigers also played without Justin Powell, one of its top players, against Alabama. Powell, a 6-foot-6 freshman shooting guard who played point guard heavily in Cooper’s absence, averages 11.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.7 assists. He is questionable this week as he continues to deal with a concussion.
In addition to Cooper, Auburn has two other key players from Georgia, including Norcross grad J.T. Thor, who had 15 points and a team-high nine rebounds. Teammate Jaylin Williams, a Brantley County native, averages 10.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists.
To contain Cooper and the talented Tigers, Crean needs much better from his Bulldogs after they were outscored 56-32 in the second half by Arkansas. It left him frustrated in his post-game comments.
“We were right there in the first half. We were playing very good ball in the first half,” Crean said. “But they punched us early in the second half, and we didn’t respond to it. We had nobody respond to it, and no one took the bull by the horns, so to speak, to rally the team. Again, we just didn’t get back defensively as well. We started trying to take things into our own hands, offensively. We have to make some adjustments. We have to do things a little bit different. Today was the first time that somebody absolutely came at us that way, in that second half. In the first half we were doing a lot good things. We were giving up some points, but we were scoring points. We were right there. We didn’t come out with the same fervor as they did and they turned it up.
“We did not respond, even when it was 12, 14, 15, 16, in that area when it is still such a winnable ball game. I think it was 18 to 20, with 12 minutes to go — that’s a lifetime of basketball. But today when they were looking back at me, they weren’t believing me. Right? There was too much quietness, too much into our own feelings, too much pouting, whatever it is, it didn’t manifest itself in being together enough. Our youth, our newness, whatever it is, those things came out because no one really responded and tried to lead the team through it. That hurt us, no doubt about it.”
There were some bright spots in the Arkansas loss. Andrew Garcia had 15 points and a season-high 11 rebounds, while Toumani Camara also scored 15 and made a career-high three 3-pointers. However, Camara, one of the nation’s leaders in double-doubles, was held without a rebound.
It was indicative of a team issues on the glass in the rout.
“We did not do enough (with rebounding effort),” Crean said after the Arkansas loss. “Toumani Camara had 16 boards the other night, and he had zero tonight. We did not come out for a 40-minute battle. When you come out for a 40-minute battle, rebounds are a huge part of that. I think the rebounding was four or five at the half. But no, we were not nearly as active as we needed to be. We were not nearly as full of energy when getting on the offensive glass or defensive glass as we needed to be. Which in turn makes our break go, we just did not do that.”
The lack of energy was the coach’s biggest concern, something he wants his team to correct when it returns to Stegeman Coliseum to face Auburn.
“I didn’t like our spirit and energy (against Arkansas),” Crean said. “I think it hurt us in both. We didn’t respond when they came out and it was a six-point game at half. We didn’t respond when they jumped on us there a little bit, that’s what bothers me the most. There was a lack of response so it affects offense and defense. We’ve got to get through that and there’s no doubt about it. Our selfishness of being involved in our own mind was very high. That’s not how you win. We were very immature in that second half. I was trying a lot of different ways to get us out of it. I was trying to stay as positive as I could with it, but I didn’t have a lot of foot soldiers with me on that when it came to just taking the bull by the horns and just taking responsibility on the floor to help get their teammates situated. That hurt us.”