Nobody accused Tom Crean of setting the bar high for his first season in Athens.
Crean stressed, at his introductory press conference back in March 2018, that the process would take time. Perhaps the entire year, maybe, before the Bulldogs began to fully grasp his style and run it cleanly.
“I know it’s not going to happen overnight,” he said in his 20-plus-minute opening statement.
Two games into the Bulldogs’ Southeastern Conference slate, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Crean wasn’t lying. He continued to stress that it would, in fact, take some time before this team could grasp his system in various interviews since.
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One redeeming factor was that, at least, Crean’s first team would be fun to watch. It would score, a lot, but so would its opponents. Through just two SEC games, though, the verdict is still out.
The Bulldogs followed a 96-50 drubbing at the hands of rival Tennessee with an 82-63 win to Vanderbilt in their conference home-opener. But the turnovers were back (Georgia committed its fair share of those Wednesday night) and the three-pointers weren’t falling, at least in the first half. Although it should be noted, they certainly were falling after the break.
“I thought we’d respond (to the Tennessee loss),” Crean said after the Vanderbilt win. “That’s not indicative of us. … Are we going to be the team that started the game at Tennessee, or are we going to be the team that had all the excitement that was here tonight?”
After an 8-4 start to the season, a slight reality check for Crean’s Bulldogs, and anybody who expected a Mark Fox-recruited team to (overnight) transform into one that could compete with the Kentuckys and Tennessees of the SEC.
But also, a sign of promise: That the 2019 Bulldogs can win the ugly ones. And Wednesday night’s game was quite ugly, for over a half. Both teams struggled to score in the first half, both struggled with turnovers, and both were ice-cold from behind the three-point arc.
That, really, is the conundrum with the 2019 Bulldogs.
Georgia’s three-point shots suddenly started falling after the break. And the Bulldogs started scoring, and playing with more freedom and looseness than they did before Tyree Crump and William (Turtle) Jackson hit back-to-back threes.
Rayshaun Hammonds, after a scoreless first half, finished with a team-best 19 points. Nicolas Claxton finished one point away from a double-double.
“A lot of guys started knocking down shots,” Claxton said. “Turtle came up big, Derek (Ogbeide), Rayshaun, they started hitting shots. Shots started falling, and we played nice defense.”
So, the scoring ability is there and so is the talent on the defensive end. For Georgia, it’s just a matter of combining the two, and adding some consistency to the mix. Still, who knows how long that may last. But the Bulldogs offered a glimpse of what’s to come — and a reminder that they’re still a work in progress — over the course of two very different halves against the Commodores.
For now, at least for Crean’s squad, it’s still a learning experience — as it will be for much of the season. But a win against Vanderbilt after leading at halftime, something the team has struggled with this season, certainly doesn’t hurt.
“We’re going to have to have a little bit of time as we play this schedule to see if (tonight’s win) was real maturity or not,” Crean said. “It’s definitely a step. They practiced very well the past couple of days. … We just don’t have a group of guys yet that know how to rally each other. That’s where they’re all in new roles.
“J.J. Frazier was that guy, Yante Maten was that guy. Now these guys, gotta be those guys.”
How fast the team will adjust to those new roles is still rather unknown, but the Bulldogs do travel to top-10-ranked Auburn on Saturday (4 p.m., ESPN2), a team that, for its part, dispatched of Ole Miss on Wednesday. Then comes a home tilt with the aforementioned Wildcats the following Tuesday night (7 p.m., ESPN).