ATHENS — A theory was broached with Georgia coach Tom Crean on Tuesday. Perhaps SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey and the powers that be in the league office in Birmingham sought to indoctrinate him to the power of SEC basketball by making sure the Bulldogs played the best of the best in the first month of the year.
Crean doesn’t buy that, but saw the humor in it.
“I do think it’s important to keep that in mind, the schedule that we’ve had,” said Crean, who is preparing to take his team on the road to face another Top 25 team in LSU on Wednesday (7 p.m., TV: SEC Network, radio: WSB 750-AM & 95.5 FM). “But no.”
Crean said he did get a really nice text from Sankey recently on the death of Crean’s mother. Marjorie Crean, 80, passed away this past Friday after a long illness. Crean will return to Mt. Pleasant, Mich., Sunday to attend her funeral.
In the meantime, Crean’s first Georgia team remains in the midst of a meat grinder of conference games. The Bulldogs’ latest opponent is LSU, which after a seven-game winning streak just popped back into the Associated Press Top 25 rankings at No. 25. The Tigers (14-3 overall, 4-0 SEC), in their second season under coach Will Wade, are a high-scoring bunch led by dynamic point guard Tremont Waters (13.5 ppg, 6.2 apg). They’re averaging 82.5 points a game and are coming of 14- and 22-point wins over Ole Miss and South Carolina, respectively.
Georgia headed to Baton Rouge on Tuesday having lost for four of their last five conference games and dragging a 9-8 overall record. The Bulldogs’ first six conference opponents have had an average ranking of 23 at the time they played. Since then, Tennessee has risen to No. 1.
“I think this league is so well run and so well done,” Crean said. “The bottom line is we’ve been in a gauntlet and we’ve played teams in a row like that other (teams) maybe aren’t going to play in a row, but they’re going to have to play them, too. We’ve just got to learn from the lessons we’re getting here and start to apply them.”
The lessons have come through loud and clear. The Bulldogs must get much better guard play overall, improve in on-the-ball defense, shoot the ball far most consistently — especially from 3-point range — and operate Crean’s free-flowing offense with better spacing and ball movement.
Georgia has scored just 49 and 52 points in its last two outings, a rarity with Crean-coached teams. In SEC games, the Bulldogs are 13th in scoring (62.2 ppg) and 3-point shooting (25.9 percent) and 12th in overall field-goal percentage (38.9). Georgia’s 9-for-41 from behind the arc the last two games.
That’s something the Bulldogs desperately need to address since opponents are packing the lane against them.
“Spacing is something that Coach Crean has really been harping on,” said Georgia’s point-forward, 6-11 sophomore Nicolas Claxton. “Make sure we have a lot of spacing, like against Florida in the second half when we came out and had a big run. What was big was just the spacing and ball movement and making sure we continue to play our pace throughout the game.”
Keeping pace with LSU at Pete Maravich Assembly Center promises to be a huge challenge. The Tigers haven’t scored fewer than 75 points during their seven-game win streak and have averaged 87.0 points in the last five games. As a result, only them and Tennessee remain undefeated in SEC play. LSU will be seeking its first 5-0 start in SEC play in 13 years. The 14-3 start is its best in 2008-09.
So far, at least, tied for first in the SEC is considerably better than a preseason prediction of sixth.
“There’s no question that they’ve got a ton of talent,” Crean said of LSU. “They’ve recruited extremely well, and (Coach Wade is) doing a really great job with them. They defend well, and Tremont brings a whole other dimension to their team.”
That’s been par for the course for the Bulldogs. They’ll get a bit of respite on Saturday when they play host to Texas (11-7, 3-3 SEC) in an SEC/Big 12 Challenge game. Georgia will wrap up the month of January with a trip to Arkansas (10-7, 1-4 SEC).
Now’s as good a time to turn it around. Crean was pleading for patience as the Bulldogs’ fan base grows ever more restless over the slow start.
“I think you’ve got to keep the big picture in mind,” Crean said. “We’re looking to get better. We’re looking to change the style of play, working to create fundamentals. I know at times it doesn’t look very fundamentally sound with our defense, but I think you’re seeing flashes of what we can become. No one is sitting back acceptant of any of it, right? We’ve got to keep getting better and better. But the bottom line is we’ve got to deal with it on a daily basis and try to get the guys to understand the level of consistency that goes into this.”