ATHENS – Reality check. That’s what Tom Crean got at Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena this past Saturday, a reality check.
Georgia’s first-year coach admitted after the humiliating 96-50 defeat at the hands of the No. 3-ranked Vols that he took his team to Knoxville with no preconceptions or expectations about what they’d encounter there. He’d never competed in an SEC game and never been with a team that played on the road at Tennessee. So his was very much a wait-and-see approach.
Then he watched as his Bulldogs got kicked around and bloodied — bullied really — against one of the SEC’s premier teams this year. The final result was Georgia’s worse loss in the 106-year history of its basketball rivalry against Tennessee and the largest margin of defeat since 1959.
“We’ve got a long way to go in a short period of time,” Crean said in the postgame news conference. “That’s what our focus has got to be.”
That Georgia (8-5, 0-1 SEC) lost to the Vols in Knoxville and even that it was blown out shouldn’t be too alarming. Tennessee (12-1) is co-defending champion of the SEC and was picked to finish second in the league this year behind Kentucky that has since looked inferior. The Bulldogs, conversely, were picked to finish 13th while learning a new system from a new coach.
It bears noting that before the trip to Knoxville, Crean and the Bulldogs said they didn’t believe themselves to be the SEC’s 13th-best team. They’d won three in a row and had shown signs of progress since blowing an 18-point lead to lose to No. 20 Arizona.
Then came a very public humbling Saturday before 21,678 in Tennessee’s sold-out area. Crean didn’t see that coming.
“I don’t know them well enough really,” Crean said of his first Georgia team. “We’ haven’t been together 10 months yet. But it’s uncharacteristic for us to be that un-competitive. … I know the talent level has changed. I know that. But our effort level had a lot to do with how successful (Tennessee was). They’re obviously a very good team and they’re hitting on all cylinders.”
The Bulldogs’ record for all-time worse loss — 77 points to Kentucky (143-66) in 1956 — appears safe for now. But as Crean continues to install his free-form style of shoot-when-open, always-be-running offense, more lopsided defeats could be in the offing this season.
Georgia will need to be particularly guarded against that in the next week. A home game against a high-scoring Vanderbilt team (9-4, 0-1 SEC) on Wednesday will be followed Saturday by road trip to play arguably the league’s second-best team in No. 12 Auburn. The Tigers (11-2) play their SEC opener Wednesday at Ole Miss, which just defeated Vandy this past weekend in Nashville.
The Bulldogs must be careful at this juncture to not let the defeats snowball and drag down their confidence in the process. For now, at least, they insist it remains intact.
“We’re going to bounce back from this,” said senior center Derek Ogbeide, who led the Bulldogs with 17 points on Saturday. “That’s the only other option. You know, we’re going to have to capitalize or sink. We’re choosing the right thing.”
Saturday’s SEC road experience was Crean’s first. He has experienced his share of tough road environments in previous coaching stops at Indiana and Marquette, but he came away duly impressed.
What he was disappointed in was his young team’s performance in the midst of it. That’s the part that took him aback.
“I misread that,” Crean said. “We had a good couple of days (of practice), a good morning (shoot-around). But for one reason or another we ran like we were wearing 50-pound weights on our shoulders. … Obviously we didn’t react very well. But I don’t think the crowd had anything to do with how slow we were running. I don’t think the crowd had anything to do with how lethargic and un-aggressive we were.”
The question now is whether the Bulldogs can’t get over that embarrassment and get back on the track of progress that Crean had witnessed before the new year.
“I know this: You have to relish these opportunities,” Crean said. “Really, it’s an opportunity every night in this league. Playing college basketball is an opportunity. You have to relish opportunities when you have a chance to come in and compete against a team like Tennessee in their environment, and we did not.”