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John Kelley/UGA
Could more of Tyree Crump playing the point be the answer that has been eluding Mark Fox's Bulldogs?

Georgia basketball in another must-win situation vs. Tennessee at Stegeman

Chip Towers

ATHENS ― It was work as usual at Georgia’s basketball training facility on Friday. The Georgia Bulldogs are getting ready for yet another must-win matchup as they host No. 18 Tennessee on Saturday at 6 p.m.

Whatever your complaints or gripes are about Bulldogs’ basketball, they still put on a pretty good show and people still come out to watch them. The Saturday game is a solid sellout, save for the unknown fact as to whether the students will pick up all 2,000 of their allotted tickets.

The far-away view of this matchup is it pits two teams headed in different directions: the Volunteers (19-6, 9-4 SEC) under a relatively-new-to-them coach (Rick Barnes) playing for postseason seeding and success; the Bulldogs (14-11, 5-8) under a relatively long-tenured coach (Mark Fox) playing with a sense of desperation just to extend their season beyond the SEC Tournament. And all that is indeed factual.

But closer up, it looks like a very well-matched pair that, if nothing else, ought to give the 10,000 or so souls and the regional television audience some good entertainment.

Catching you up, the Bulldogs are coming off one of the most exciting and unexpected outcomes of the season, a 72-69 victory over Florida in overtime. Never mind that it was Georgia’s first win in Gainesville since 2002 and gave the Bulldogs their first sweep of the Gators since Tubby Smith was the coach. They managed to get it after trailing by 11 with 10 minutes to play and 7 with 90 seconds to play. Georgia got three 3-pointers ― one from Tyree Crump and two from Yante Manten ― with a forced turnover mixed in to forge overtime.

“Those are hard comebacks, but we had a pretty determined group and it turned out well for us,” Fox said.

A great road win it was, and it gives the Bulldogs four of those. What they’ve needed more of is “Ws” on the old home floor, and this is one they desperately needed.

Generally a tournament team expects to remain unscathed on its own court, or at least reserve losses to tight affairs against monumental opponents. Instead, the Bulldogs are 9-3 at refurbished Stegeman Coliseum and have lost those three to Arkansas, Auburn and South Carolina by an average of 9 points.

Meanwhile, the fans continue to come. The Tennessee game will represent Georgia’s third consecutive sellout, and it should go to four with all seats already claimed for the Feb. 24 tilt against LSU.

Usually, it follows that the home team with all the fans there rooting for them will prevail in a matchup of similarly skilled teams. So why hasn’t Georgia been able to take care of business, at least against the Gamecocks and Hogs of the world?

“The key is to be able to play in that environment and play with poise,” Fox said Friday.

Ah, yes, poise has been a commodity of which Georgia hasn’t had much this season. And there’s at least one good reason for that. J.J. Frazier will be at the game Saturday, but he’ll be there as a spectator rather than the team’s point guard; he’s finishing up school during a break from overseas pro ball. How many times did we all witness Georgia’s little left-hander launch late-in-the-clock rainbows for winning buckets the previous two years?

From my perch, that’s what the Bulldogs are missing more than anything here in season 9 under Fox. They just haven’t gotten playmaking or scoring out of the point guard position that they became accustomed to during Frazier’s time.

Junior Turtle Jackson has played with great effort and commendable spirit, but he hasn’t been the consistent creator or scorer Georgia has needed. By default, perhaps, the Bulldogs found a viable option in Crump, the streaky-shooting sophomore from Bainbridge, Ga. Jackson came up lame with a lower-leg injury ― he’ll be back for this game ― and couldn’t finish the game against the Gators. So Fox inserted Crump at the point and Crump finished with 5 after-halftime assists in addition to his two 3s and 13 points.

“We had to reinvent our rotation a little,” Fox acknowledged.

Who knows? Maybe that’s the secret sauce the Bulldogs have been missing. Or maybe they’re just who they are and aren’t meant for postseason glory. We’ll see soon enough.

The good news is a lot of people are showing up to find out.