ATHENS — There are no such things as moral victories in SEC revenue sports, where coaches are paid with multi-million dollar contracts to win games and turn programs around.
But that is not to say progress cannot be made in losses, as was the case for Georgia basketball at No. 15 Tennessee in its 89-81 loss on Wednesday night in Knoxville.
Coach Tom Crean might still lack the necessary talent on his roster to completely turn the corner in Athens. But the UGA team culture has clearly changed since Crean’s first campaign in 2018-19, with the program becoming poised and competitive despite its obvious shortcomings in the frontcourt.
The Bulldogs trailed by 23 points with just under 11 minutes left on Wednesday night in Knoxville after the Vols completed a 9-0 run to seemingly put the game out of reach and cover the 12 1/2-point spread.
Two years ago, Coach Rick Barnes program scored a 46-point win over an uncompetitive Georgia team loaded with six leftover seniors that seemingly had no fight left in them.
Some of those seniors spoke of life journeys and rings in trees after defeats, others said they were just happy to be graduating from a great university like Georgia.
It was a 2018-29 team that was 0-6 in games decided by 4 points or less.
Contrast that to the Anthony “Antman” Edwards one-year era last season (5-3), and then this year’s gritty bunch (4-1).
Then and now
Georgia coach Tom Crean publicly blamed himself for keeping some of the players in the program in Year One, rather than completely reloading. It was a team struggled to an 11-21 finish and 2-16 mark in SEC play.
Fast-forward to two years later, where the Bulldogs find themselves 12-7 overall and coming off a three-game SEC win streak. Georgia has wins over Bruce Pearl’s Auburn team and John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats, along with a season sweep over Ole Miss’ 2019 SEC Coach of the Year Kermit Davis.
Crean no longer worries about the focus or competitive drive of his players, so much as the tactical plans to keep his team in games.
Down double-digits on the road with the opponent shooting the lights out and getting a friendly whistle, Crean has his players kept their composure.
“I kept reminding them there was 6:30 left in the game last Saturday when Alabama was down 20 to Missouri,” Crean said, “and it had at least three chances to win that game.”
It seemed far-fetched to think Georgia could mount the same sort of challenge, but that’s exactly what the Bulldogs were on the verge of doing in the final minutes.
If not for two missed drives and two questionable calls in the final three minutes, Georgia could have drawn even closer than the six points it got the lead down to at the 1:03 mark on a KD Johnson drive.
Barnes, who knows better than to hold anything back in the scoring margin category against Georgia, with Tennessee a regular player in Peach State recruiting, said the Bulldogs’ comeback was legit.
“It’s frustrating, but I think you have to give Georgia credit, they got up there and they got their hand on (the ball) and would break it loose,” said Barnes, whose team turned the ball over six times during the Bulldogs’ charge.
“I think you have to give Georgia credit for that, they got aggressive and they took the ball from us in those situations.”
Such praise would have once been cause for celebration for a Bulldogs’ basketball program that has lacked relevance for decades.
Georgia hasn’t made the NCAA tournament field since 2015 and hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2002.
The 2020-21 Bulldogs don’t appear to have the size nor star power to break those streaks this season.
But progress is being made.
Promise is on the horizon with SEC-assist leader Sahvir Wheeler, All-SEC talent Toumani Camara, home-grown wing Tye Fagan, and emerging freshman KD Johnson on the rise.
The graduate transfers Crean brought in this season — PJ Horne (Virginia Tech), Justin Kirt (George Mason) and Andrew Garcia (Stony Brook) — have all had their moments while growing their games and filling valuable roles.
Tougher challenges await, the final script has not been written.
Georgia will likely be the underdog in each of its five remaining regular-season games.
Next up are two ranked opponents: At No. 11 Alabama (3:30 p.m., Saturday), and then vs. No. 10 Missouri (6:30 pm. Tuesday).
The Bulldogs then have games at Florida (3:30 p.m. Feb. 20), and then home against LSU (Feb. 23) and South Carolina Feb. 27) — three teams that have already beat them this season.
The league has yet to announce when, or if, Georgia’s postponed road game at Texas A&M will be made up.
Regardless, Crean has an idea of how he wants his team to play regardless of the opposition.
Undersized as they are — Camara, at 6-foot-8, is the tallest player getting double-digit minutes per game — it’s a capable group that competes to the final buzzer.
“We have to play with force for 40 minutes, be aggressive for 40 minutes,” Crean said. “I’m a realist on what we have to do to get better and get ready for Alabama. I’m not discouraged at all, every day I understand what we’re capable of.
“I just want them to understand what we’re capable of and how hard it is.”