ATHENS — The ever-gregarious Tom Crean has remained so throughout an up-and-down first season as Georgia’s basketball coach. But the downs have been significantly more than the ups, and never more pronounced than the great-to-awful transition the Bulldogs just made from an upset road win over Florida to a humiliating home loss to Missouri this past Wednesday night.
Crean, a 20-year head coaching veteran who has overseen two previous rebuilding projects, was asked if he’d been a part of such disparate performances.
“In my career?” Crean asked. “Probably, but I can’t think of one.”
It is fairly astonishing to think that Georgia could go from shooting 56 percent from the floor and 40 percent from 3-point range to win 61-55 in Gainesville, then follow that up four days later by shooting 25 and 15 to lose by 25 points to a four-SEC-win Missouri team on your home floor. But that’s the kind of year it has been.
The Bulldogs (11-19, 2-15 SEC) have experienced wild swings all year, from impressive non-conference performances, to lopsided conference losses, to a stretch in which they were incredibly competitive but couldn’t close the deal. All told, it has been a 30-game rollercoaster that has them arriving at South Carolina’s Colonial Life Arena for Saturday’s 1 p.m. regular-season finale (TV: SEC Network; radio: WSB 750-AM & 95.5 FM).
If Georgia can’t manage to pull off what would be an upset victory, it will represent the program’s worst season against an 18-game conference schedule since 1973-74, when the Bulldogs also went 2-16. Georgia hasn’t won as few as 11 games overall since 1999-2000 when it went 10-20.
To that, South Carolina stands in stark contrast. The Gamecocks (15-15, 10-7 SEC) are in position to lock down a coveted first-round bye for next week’s SEC Tournament in Nashville. They’re currently tied for the fourth and final spot with Auburn. They beat the Tigers 80-77 in late January and therefore hold the tiebreaker.
Georgia happened to play one of its better games against South Carolina when it visited Stegeman Coliseum on Feb. 2. That came at a point where Georgia was still trying to write its story for the 2018-19 season.
The Bulldogs lost 86-80 in the second of what would grow to a nine-game losing streak.
“It’s been an extremely rough season,” said sophomore forward Nicolas Claxton, who leads the Bulldogs in scoring (13.0 ppg), rebounding (8.6 pg), blocks (71) and steals (34). “I would say up-and-down but it’s really just been a down season. … We’ve just got to go to Columbia and fight and give it all we have.”
The trouble now is, Georgia doesn’t even have all its pieces. Sophomore forward Rayshaun Hammonds, who is number two to Claxton in virtually every statistical category, has been scratched for the season. He underwent surgery on his right foot Monday and won’t be back in action for “months,” according to Crean.
That has resulted in Georgia’s opponents exerting extraordinary amounts of defensive attention to Claxton. When the Bulldogs’ experience an off-night shooting such as they did against Missouri, the results can be horrific.
The fix is getting a decent night’s output from at least one or two of the replacements that Crean has sent out for the 6-foot-8 Hammonds. That has included a wide range of player types, from 6-6, 220-pound senior E’Torrion Wilridge to 6-6, 190-pound freshman Jojo Toppin.
Whatever happens against South Carolina won’t change Georgia’s fate for the season. The Bulldogs are assured of finishing in 13th place in league, which was right where they were predicted to finish at SEC Media Days in Birmingham back in October. That will place Georgia in Wednesday night’s 7 p.m. play-in game against the No. 12 team in next week’s SEC Tournament.
As it stands now, that opponent will likely be Missouri (5-12 SEC), depending on how it finishes up in its season finale at home against Ole Miss (9-8) and how Texas A&M (6-11) does on the road at Mississippi State (9-8).
With Mizzou being a strong possibility, one might think the Bulldogs spent a lot of time going over in detail the game video from Wednesday night’s 64-39 debacle.
“Quickly. Quickly,” Crean said of how much they examined the latest loss. “We didn’t have a long practice (Thursday). We just went in there and attacked a couple of things that we needed to get prepared for the next game and we’ll have what I hope is a good (practice) today. But they were ready to go yesterday. Nobody felt worse than them.”