ATHENS — Georgia basketball returns to the friendly confines of Stegeman Coliseum where the team is 9-1 his season, seemingly, just in time.
The Bulldogs (11-7. 1-4 SEC) play host to Ole Miss (9-9, 0-5) at 5:30 p.m. (TV: SEC Network) in desperate need of a victory to rekindle any sort of NCAA tournament hopes.
The fan support is certainly there. The only remaining Georgia home basketball games with tickets available this season are South Carolina (Feb. 12) and Auburn (Feb. 19).
This, even though virtually no one outside the program is projecting Coach Tom Crean’s young team, filled with nine freshmen on the roster, to make the so-called Big Dance.
Even with projected 2020 NBA lottery pick Anthony Edwards playing a starring role.
Sophomore Tye Fagan and freshman Toumani Camara confirmed the NCAA tourney is the long-term season goal, even if the focus never goes beyond one game.
“Most definitely, without a doubt, we take each game one at a time so we’re not thinking so far into the future,” said Fagan, who’s coming off a 6-of-6, 13-point shooting performance at Kentucky last Tuesday. “But that is the goal.”
The surge from the 6-foot-8 Camara over the last 12 games has provided a boost. Camara is UGA’s second leading rebounder (5.2 rpg) and third on the team in scoring (7.6 ppg) and minutes played (26.9 mpg) in that span.
But the Bulldogs, No. 56 in the projected RPI rankings, had better get back on the winning track and take advantage of the softer stretch of the schedule.
After opening the 2020 with six opponents and seven games against teams that played in last year’s NCAA tournament — and going 2-4 in that stretch so far, with wins at Memphis and against Tennessee — Georgia’s schedule lightens up this week.
Saturday’s Ole Miss home game is followed by a road trop to Missouri (9-9, 1-5) on Tuesday. Then there’s a home game with Texas A&M (9-8, 3-3) next Saturday.
Crean, understandably, isn’t losing sight of the task at hand against the Rebels.
“Right now we’re focused on how we get ready for Ole Miss,” Crean said. “I had the number one team in the country and wasn’t talking about the NCAA Tournament, back at Indiana.
“What you do is you focus. We’re in late January here. We focus on the team and what we have to do and be absolutely wrapped up in that.”
Crean said he’s not certain if freshman point guard Sahvir Wheeler is back at 100 percent after suffering an ankle injury in the 80-63 win over Tennessee on Jan. 15.
Wheeler has played the last two games, but he has lost the explosion and quickness that makes him so effective. He has scored just one basket and dished out two assists in the last 38 minutes he played against Mississippi State and Kentucky.
Edwards continues to lead the nation’s freshmen in scoring with 18.9 points per game. But the so-called “Antman” is still learning to get to the rim and overcome the extra attention defenses are paying to him.
Edwards was held scoreless in the first half at Kentucky last Tuesday night before scoring 16 points in a second half at Rupp Arena that saw the Bulldogs fail to get closer than seven points.
Crean, however, defends Edwards’ youth. He’s focusing on developing Edwards like he does every other player.
“I came in knowing we’re going to have to develop him every day, help him grow every day,” Crean said.
“It’s all different when you get them and how they process, how they learn, what do they have to get better at, how they apply it, how you build confidence, how you tweak them, how you challenge them is all a part of the daily process. We’re just right in the midst of that and I’m enjoying it.”
A win over Ole Miss would make Crean and Georgia enjoy the process of the team growing more, as well as keeping what appears to be scant NCAA tourney hopes alive.
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