- Chris Starrs For the AJC
In its SEC games this winter, Georgia has not always won the rebound battle, but rarely have the Bulldogs performed as poorly on the glass as they did Saturday at Mississippi State.
In the 72-57 loss, Georgia was smoked on the boards by a 37-20 margin, easily their worst showing of the season.
“We just got outrebounded like seldom have we ever been outrebounded, like minus-17,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said during Monday’s SEC teleconference. “I thought our interior play was really deficient defensively, and that’s not been a characteristic of this group, so it’s something we’ll look at. … But we have to return to form defensively to have a shot to win.”
The Bulldogs (13-9, 4-6 SEC) will try to keep their postseason hopes alive Wednesday against cellar-dwelling Vanderbilt (2-8, 8-15), with an 8:30 p.m. tip at always-intriguing Memorial Coliseum in Nashville.
While the overall numbers point to an edge for Georgia, the Bulldogs have not played well on the road this season (3-6) and can’t seem to find a consistent rhythm as they’ve lost four of their past six. Any momentum Georgia accumulated with its impressive victory over then-No. 23 Florida on Jan. 31 disappeared by the time the team arrived in Starkville.
“I think it’s a situation where we had a good win last week against a very good Florida team, and we went on the road and didn’t play well,” Fox said. “I was disappointed in the level of energy that we played with defensively. I thought we were a step behind a lot of things. It’s just the grind of the season, and your hope is to be able to refocus and get the next one. We’ve had a stretch of road games … and we’ve got to go out and play just a little bit better on the road than we’ve played recently.”
The young Commodores (four freshmen, four sophomores) have endured a difficult season, although Vanderbilt gave Kentucky a run for its money in an overtime loss Wednesday and showed signs of life against Auburn on Saturday by trimming a considerable lead before falling by 12 points.
Averaging 72.2 points per game, the Commodores are slightly ahead of Georgia’s 68.9 points, but they also rank in the lower tier in the league in field-goal percentage (43.3), rebounds (34.4), assists (12.4) and steals (4.8). It is worth mentioning, however, that Vanderbilt ranks among the top five in the SEC in 3-point shooting (33.2 percent).
“Vandy is a much better team than what their record would state,” said Fox, whose team hosts No. 8 Auburn on Saturday. “The league is so deep this year and there’s such great quality from top to bottom that you’re going to have some losses. I think they’re playing with great confidence offensively, and they’re a very dangerous club.”
If there was any silver lining in Georgia’s loss at Mississippi State, it was the play of sophomore Tyree Crump and senior Pape Diatta. Crump got his first start of the season and responded with 13 points and Diatta played in only his seventh game and made four 3-pointers, his first shots and points of the season.
Fox said Monday that Crump got the start in part because Teshaun Hightower was felled with the flu and missed three games. Fox didn’t comment on Hightower’s status for Wednesday.
Diatta, who has not played more than 12 minutes in any of his seven games, has been slowed by an ankle injury that severely limited his progress throughout the fall.
“He didn’t do any individual workouts because of his ankle, and he practiced with a big plastic brace up until the new year and really spent the month of January trying to develop more strength in the ankle and to play and move with just tape,” said Fox. “He’s practiced pretty well the last couple of weeks. He was just so far behind that working him back in has been a challenge. He’s slowly starting to play well and practice well, but he’s finally healthy.”
Fox also said that sophomore guard Jordan Harris – who was suspended indefinitely Saturday before the Mississippi State game – is not practicing with the team, but he declined to elaborate on Harris’ future status.
Harris, who also served a suspension earlier this season, averaged 3.5 points and 2.1 rebounds per game.