ATHENS — Georgia basketball is starting to make believers out of some skeptics, as well as other teams in the SEC.
Cuonzo Martin, the coach from the “Show-Me” State school of Missouri, left Stegeman Coliseum convinced the Bulldogs are headed in the right direction with Tom Crean on Tuesday night.
“Tom has done a great job recruiting guys that play together and have adopted his aggressive pace and style of offense,” Martin, whose team came from 20 down to beat UGA last season in Columbia, told DawgNation on Wednesday.
“He has a point guard in (Sahvir) Wheeler that has the ability to push the pace, execute in the half-court, and score if and when he needs to.”
Wheeler is where it starts for UGA on the floor, the sophomore point guard leading the SEC with 7.1 assists per game (6th in the nation), and setting the tone with his resiliency and charisma.
Wheeler was in the mix as the Bulldogs came from 13 down in the second half to beat Martin’s grizzled Top 20-ranked Tigers, 80-70, one of five UGA players scoring in double figures.
Georgia basketball is turning a corner, albeit, not as sharply or with enough dazzle or glitz to silence all the critics.
The Bulldogs improved to 13-8 and 6-8 in SEC play with their fourth win in their past six outings, the two losses coming on the road to No. 8 Alabama and No. 19 Tennessee.
Crean, in his third year, has improved the Georgia basketball culture each season on and off the court.
The difference in the level of buy-in is obvious when one looks at how the Bulldogs have performed under pressure: 0-6 in games decided by 4 points or less his first season, 5-3 in those tight affairs last season, and 4-1 in this campaign
SEC Network analyst Pat Bradley noted how Crean has instilled confidence in the UGA players, and how their ability to pick up the defensive intensity puts them at their best.
“It starts on the defensive end,” Bradley said. “They want to get out and run, and it’s a lot easier when you are getting the ball off the rim, with a defensive rebound or stealing it and running, rather than getting it out of the bottom of the net (after a made basket).
“The bulk of the aggressiveness came in the second half attacking the rim.”
Crean told the SEC Network after the game during his on-court interview that having an aggressive approach on offense was a focus.
“We’ve come from behind before, but this is a really, really good team that’s ranked for a reason,” Crean said. “I think to be able to come back like that—it wasn’t like they were sabotaging. They’re experienced, they’re playing hard. They weren’t self-inflicting their own wounds. They were really going, so we had to earn it.
“I think that was really, really important that we kept that pressure on them.”
Crean’s confidence in his team and his players has been unwavering, and it showed up in Justin Kier’s performance against Missouri.
Kier was 6-of-7 shooting for 16 points after going 1-for-6 against Alabama and 1-8 at Tennessee.
JUSTIN DROPPING 👌S
— Georgia Basketball (@UGABasketball) February 17, 2021
“I totally believe in him,” Crean said before the Missouri game. “With him, it’s that he’s got to be an elite defensive guard for us and focus really hard on that, and at the same time be ready to attack and score, because he can score.
“He’s one of the greatest layup-makers I’ve ever recruited. He’s got a pull-up, and he just needs to relax and let the game come to him. Because his coach believes in him 100 percent.”
Kier said after his team-high scoring performance on Tuesday that hearing his coach have his back meant everything to him.
“It is the best feeling in the world when a coach believes in you and has the all-time high confidence in you,” said Kier, a graduate transfer from George Mason. “It’s more mental than anything, that’s how tough this league is.”
Georgia knows it better than anyone, as the Bulldogs figure to be underdogs in their next two games at 3:30 p.m. at Florida on Saturday and at 7 p.m. on Tuesday against LSU back in Athens.
Crean said his team will continue to approach the games with a level of “blue-collar desperation.”
“It’s getting on the floor, it’s drawing charges, it’s winning 50-50’s, it’s attacking the rim, it’s not looking for a foul call, it’s not worrying or whining when something doesn’t go your way,” Crean said. “You are locked in. I mean, blue-collar people, if they are having a bad day, no one cares. That is what it is in basketball, they have to show up and go to work.
“They have got to show up and go to work to feed their families, they don’t get to have bad days. Well, you know what, that is where we are at in college basketball right now too. None of this is promised to us.”