ATHENS – If you compete in organized athletics, sooner or later it’s going to happen to you. You’re going to get blown out, annihilated, embarrassed.
It happened to the Georgia Bulldogs this past Saturday in a 96-50 loss at Tennessee. It was Georgia’s worse loss ever to the Vols and the program’s worse since 1959.
Guess what? You still have to play the next one. For the Bulldogs (8-5, 0-1 SEC), that’s Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. against Vanderbilt (9-4, 0-1) at Stegeman Coliseum. The game will be televised by the SEC Network and broadcast on the Georgia Bulldog Network (WSB 750-AM and 95.5 FM)
It won’t be the first time that anybody on Georgia’s bench has had to pick themselves up from a humiliating loss. Sophomore Nicolas Claxton pointed to an AAU game he played early in his basketball career. Sophomore Derek Ogbeide referenced a game against Texas A&M his freshman year in which the Bulldogs trailed by more than 40 points much of the way before finally losing by 34.
Even coach Tom Crean, whose previous head coaching stops were at basketball powerhouses Indiana and Marquette, said he’s been subjected to such competitive degradation before.
“Sure I have,” Crean said Tuesday. “I was at Indiana with eight scholarship players. …. But I don’t think in those terms. The final score wasn’t an issue to me. How we played is what I focused on. The final score was what it was.”
Obviously, Georgia didn’t play well at all against No. 3 Tennessee, which is expected to contend for the national championship this year. The Bulldogs got into extraordinary foul trouble early – with Ogbeide drawing two in the first minute and Claxton getting whistled for four in the first half – and then missed 19 of its 20 3-point shots in the game.
That can’t happen against the Commodores, who are also going to be looking for a bounce-back after losing at home to Ole Miss. Vanderbilt lost one of the top freshmen in the nation when point guard Darius Garland went down with a knee injury in the season’s fourth game. But it remains a typical high-scoring Vandy team (82.5 ppg), with several sharp-shooting guards surrounding an athletic, high-scoring forward in 6-foot-10 Simisola Shittu.
Upon their return to Athens Saturday night the Bulldogs went straight to work on addressing their many issues. Their practices have continued to be intense, but more from focus and concentration standpoint and not necessarily as punishment for anything that happened in Knoxville.
“An hour and a half away from home on that bus ride I was on to Vanderbilt,” Crean said. “The worse thing that can happen is you get mad at your team or you take it out on your team or you vent at your team. They know they played poor, we know it was a bad game and they don’t get anything out of it. That’s not what we’re doing. A younger coach sometimes thinks that works out, but I’m not like that.”
Instead, the Bulldogs have been focusing on being stronger with the ball, making open shots, playing faster longer and, of course, not fouling.
It should help playing at home on the first night that students are back on campus after the winter break. The Bulldogs are 6-1 at Stegeman this season and are averaging 8,004 fans per game. And as has been the case since Crean arrived, Georgia is rolling out the promotions. The first 1,250 UGA students through the gates on Wednesday will receive either a No. 0, 13 or 24 player t-shirt and a free Bojangles chicken biscuit.
No matter how people show up to watch them, the Bulldogs know they’re simply going to have to play much better.
“You just have to have short-term memory,” said Claxton, who is coming off his least productive game of the season. “We’ve all taken losses like that in basketball before. That’s the great thing about basketball, you have that quick-turnaround and just need to shift your focus to the next game.
It worked out well for the Bulldogs and Ogbeide the last time they were manhandled like Tennessee did this past Saturday. Following that loss to Texas A&M in 2016, Georgia shocked the SEC with a road win at Missouri, then came back home to upset Arkansas in overtime on the way to a 20-win season.
“That was something we definitely had to bounce back from, and fortunately we did,” said Ogbeide, who’s coming off a season-high 17-point game against the Vols. “It’s a mentality, a mindset, to prepare for this kind of thing, to be able to bounce back immediately, because we have much bigger pancakes to flip.”
There are indeed some big “pancakes” ahead, including a trip to No. 11 Auburn this Saturday and a visit from No. 18 Kentucky next week.
“That’s where you need the leadership,” Crean said. “There has got to be one or two guys that step up to the forefront, no matter how uncomfortable it is, and no matter how they are playing and help bring confidence to the team.”
Perhaps those individuals will emerge Wednesday night.