ATHENS — Tom Crean hopes his Georgia basketball team can finish on a strong note in the Music City this week.
“When you realize that the end is near, there’s one extra jolt that can drive you forward or it can paralyze you, or stifle you,” Crean said before what was likely the Bulldogs’ final practice of the season at Stegeman Coliseum on Tuesday.
“You want them to be on a full-tilt, doing what the team needs and doing what needs to be done to be successful.”
Crean, in his first season as Georgia’s head coach, has seen that at times this season in wins over Georgia Tech, Texas and Florida.
But the Bulldogs, led by 6-foot-11 second-team All-SEC selection Nicolas Claxton, weren’t consistent enough to do better than an 11-20 overall record and 2-16 SEC mark.
Georgia is the No. 13 seed entering a 7 p.m. (eastern) game against No. 12 seed Missouri (14-16, 5-13) in the opening game of the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. The winner faces No. 5-seed Auburn (22-9, 11-7) at 3 p.m. on Thursday.
Missouri handed the Bulldogs an embarrassing 64-39 defeat last Wednesday night in Athens, spoiling Senior Night for the six soon-to-be-departed UGA players.
Junior Jordan Harris, Georgia’s most accurate 3-point shooter (38 percent), said the team has a different, refreshed attitude.
“The mindset, the energy, and the will to want to win, those are the biggest (differences),” Harris said on Tuesday. “We’re thinking to go in and win, play hard and give it everything we’ve got.
“Obviously, we have more to prove than any team in the tournament as far as where we stand in the rankings.”
No doubt, Georgia faces the longest odds, playing without 6-8, 235-pound forward Rayshaun Hammonds. The team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder, Hammonds underwent season-ending foot surgery last Thursday.
“You’re talking about a 6-8, 6-9 guy that can go inside or outside, can shoot it or post you up, so missing him, there’s not a quick fix,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin told AJC-DawgNation. “You can’t make up for his ability to rebound, to make a 3-point shot, get an offensive rebound, and then spread the ball around.”
Hammonds was missed on the boards against Missouri, the Tigers out-rebounding UGA by a wider margin (50-28) than any previous Georgia opponent this season.
The Bulldogs’ poor shooting contributed to the rebounding opportunities. Georgia has been off target since staging a 61-55 upset at Florida on March 2.
“The most important thing for us right now, outside of getting better defensively and rebounding, is not losing our confidence making shots,” said Crean, whose team has shot 25.5 percent and 26.2 percent the past two games, the worst marks of the season. “We’re missing open shots.”
Crean hopes his seniors lead the way for a strong finish, for the sake of the program and the players, themselves.
“Hopefully they can look back on it and there is absolutely zero regret, when they are done, and zero regret 10 years from now,” Crean said. “That’s the biggest thing, did you leave everything you had out there?
“There has been many, many days where that that’s how they played. They worked hard to do that. There’s been some days they haven’t, but there’s been a lot of days they have.”
The Bulldogs have made one NCAA tournament appearance in the past seven years, most recently in 2015 under former coach Mark Fox.