Rather than dwell on the failures of 2009, however, senior Corey Butler said the team’s veterans have made a point to talk about last season’s successes, namely the team’s run through the SEC tournament to earn the conference championship. Amid so many missteps, Butler said, last year’s tournament win is needed evidence that the plan head coach Dennis Felton has in place can be successful if everyone would just buy in.
“We bring that up all the time just because the young guys haven’t seen our defense,” Butler said. We’re starting from scratch trying to get the young guys to do the things we’ve seen from (Sundiata Gaines) and Levi (Stukes) over the years.”
Last year’s highlights never seemed quite as distant a memory as they did in Georgia’s last game, a 68-45 home loss to Kentucky in which players and coaches deemed the Bulldogs’ effort as soft.
Kentucky dominated Georgia from the outset, and the Bulldogs never appeared prepared to stop the Wildcats’ on either end of the floor.
“That’s not the type of team we are,” sophomore guard Zac Swansey said. “We try to see ourself as an aggressive team that’s going to play hard for 40 minutes, and we just didn’t play hard at all against Kentucky.”
After the game, Swansey said Felton had a long talk with his team and reiterated the importance of playing the Bulldogs’ signature hard-nosed defense.
Georgia didn’t practice early this week because Felton attended Barack Obama’s inauguration in Washington, D.C., and Swansey said the time off provided an important period of reflection for the team, which has paid off with more intense practices as the Bulldogs prepared for today’s game against Mississippi State.
“We came back and have had some great days of practice, playing hard and competing,” Swansey said. “That’s all you can do is play hard and see what happens.”
Whether the strong week of practice translates into a much-needed victory on the court remains to be seen, but Swansey admits the team is running out of chances to salvage its season.
After today’s game, Georgia is on the road for consecutive contests against East-leading Florida and Alabama, making earning a victory at home all the more important.
“We got off to a bad start, and you can kind of look at this as, not necessarily a must win, but a win we’ve got to have,” Swansey said. “We’ve got a tough schedule coming up.”
While Georgia has lost five straight, only the Kentucky game was a true blowout. In the first three losses, Georgia had a lead in the second half, and in a 50-40 loss to Vanderbilt, the game never seemed out of hand.
Still, the mounting losses have taken a toll on team morale, particularly among the young players who are still adjusting to Felton’s game plan, and that has placed a bigger burden on the team’s leaders to keep everyone in line.
“I think we have stepped up our efforts with these young guys just to really get them to commit to the system, our defensive system,” Butler said. “It’s very different than anything these guys played in high school, and it takes a lot of adjusting. Really, the basis is just hard work and effort, and if you put that in there, we can shut down anyone. But if we don’t, the results will show like with the game against Kentucky.”
Like Kentucky, Mississippi State is capable of scorching Georgia on its home court if the Bulldogs fail to play with the defensive intensity Butler said the team has shown in practice this week.
Mississippi State has won five of its past six games and is tied for first place in the SEC West with LSU. Georgia is still winless in conference, and the road ahead appears daunting, but Butler said the lessons of last season’s surprise run to an SEC title remain fresh.
“We’ve seen it work,” Butler said. “When we consistently decided to play defense for four straight games, you saw it in the SEC championship. We held teams to a low percentage shooting, under 50 or 60 points a game, and that’s what it’s about.”