Georgia’s SEC Tournament hopes ended before they ever really started Thursday night. Despite the scoreboard showing that the contest was close throughout, the Dawgs were dispatched by Missouri in a game that it never really felt like they were in. In what was probably their last game of the season, Georgia lost in a way that was a tragically appropriate microcosm of their entire season.
Down by two points with under 20 second remaining, Toumani Camara stepped to the line for the Dawgs. The official handed him the ball, and Justin Kier came walking towards the lane to take a place on the blocks and prepare for a rebound. Since Camara had already been handed the ball by the official, Kier’s crossing of the three-point line constituted a lane violation.
When things mattered most, a poorly coached team made the type of mistake that well coached teams don’t. It was the same type of mistake that Georgia has made in crucial situations all season. The predictability of it was tragically comical, and worst of all, it happened on Camara’s first shot of two. There would have been no rebound after the shot.
A lot of people in Bulldog Nation rank basketball somewhere behind baseball and women’s gymnastics when it comes to the most important sports on campus. I am in multiple text and Twitter threads filled with Georgia fans, and whenever basketball comes up the most common response is something like, “Lol Georgia Basketball... Who cares about that?!”
Well, I care, dammit.
I grew up a Bulldog fan, but I was raised in the Tar Heel State. At my high-school the basketball gymnasium held 3,500 screaming fans. When we played our cross-town rivals games were moved to the local university’s gymnasium. That 6,000 seat gym would fill up an hour before tip-off, leaving plenty of fans outside without a ticket. If you wanted to commit a major crime, you would have been smart to plan it for a Saturday afternoon when Duke and North Carolina were playing. You couldn’t find a car on the road for those two hours.
Basketball will never be like that in Georgia. Football is our religion, and it’s a hell of a thing. It has been famously said that a school’s football program is its front porch. It’s the most visible thing a school has to show the world.
But what about when the calendar turns to January? Currently, the University of Georgia brings in all of the outdoor furniture, puts out the tiki torches, closes the blinds, and turns out the lights. One would think that an institution that garners as much adoration as UGA does from August to December could get a little love from January through April.
Sports are entertainment. Never has that been more clear than it has over the last year. Life got a little better for many of us during the pandemic once we had sporting events to flip on again. Georgia played ten football games last season, and each of them gave us a three-and-a-half hour reprieve from the tornado of problems happening around us.
I want Georgia Basketball to be a successful entity for a lot of reasons, but above all I want something to suck us in for a few hours a week from January through March. A large segment of UGA’s alumni and fan base openly say that they could care less about basketball, but I believe that’s less because of some disdain they have for round balls than it is due to the fact that they’ve seldom had a good team to pull for.
I have seen Stegeman Coliseum full for Women’s Gymnastics meets. Is that because an inordinate amount of the population in Athens loves gymnastics? Of course not, it’s because people love a winner. So how does Georgia Basketball become one?
A few years ago the university realized that they needed to fix the eyesore that is the basketball program. Kirby Smart does bring recruits to games from time to time after all, we need a nice thing to show out football players, they reasoned. Georgia committed 20 million dollars to giving Stegeman Coliseum a massive face lift. They followed that up by paying big money to a basketball coach for the first time. As someone who has been watching mostly bad Georgia Basketball teams that haven’t warranted the emotional investment I’ve given them for my entire life, I was excited.
There was just one problem. They invested that coaching salary on Tom Crean. Georgia, a program trying to carve out an identity for itself in a conference full of institutions who have made basketball an increasing financial priority over the last decade, went and hired a guy who couldn’t find sustained success at a blue-blood program like Indiana.
Greg McGarity hired a guy who did less with more to do more with less, and hoped that he would suddenly be a different coach than he had been the last decade.
What’s most maddening is that Tom Crean has upgraded the talent in Athens, but it hasn’t resulted in enough wins. He brought in Anthony Edwards, last year’s #1 overall NBA Draft Pick. That same year, he also brought in the best recruiting class that the Dawgs have had in the modern era. The problem is that he hasn’t been able to give those players the help or direction they need.
Toumani Camara, Sahvir Wheeler and KD Johnson have flashed promise as a young core. Unfortunately, Crean has shown us in two consecutive recruiting cycles that he doesn’t have the ability to surround those guys with the complimentary pieces that are needed.
Camara’s natural skills make him a great stretch forward, but Crean hasn’t been able to recruit a big man to team up with him. At 6’8”, Camara is the tallest player in Georgia’s rotation. Crean’s staff also hasn’t been able to teach Camara how to play in the with his back to the basket in the low post. Because of that, Camara is often away from the basket on offense and the Dawgs don’t have a strong presence on the glass. On defense, teams know they can clear out the lane by pulling Camara’s defensive assignment towards the perimeter. That lead to Georgia getting killed by offensive rebounds game after game this season. Mid-major transfer Andrew Garcia put in a gritty effort all year, but he is only 6’6”, and that doesn’t cut it on the low block in Power 5 basketball.
Dynamic point-guard Sahvir Wheeler drove many of us crazy by his continued drives into triple teams early this season, but the light started to come on for him midway through this year. Unfortunately, Crean hasn’t been able to recruit a spot-up three-point shooter to compliment him with. Wheeler made brilliant passes game after game down the stretch of this season, but there wasn’t a sharp shooter to catch them.
Crean recruited a solid combo guard in KD Johnson. The freshman from Atlanta can drive to the basket, and he shoots well enough from distance to keep defenses honest. He’s a tenacious defender, and he gives Crean another backcourt piece to go with Wheeler. That Georgia is that much closer to being a complete team makes the situation even more frustrating.
There is a skilled big man with an excellent post game and superb rebounding ability who is a UGA legacy. His last name, Kessler, is the closest thing to Georgia Basketball royalty that exists. At 7’1”, he’s the type of player that would make Georgia a team capable of earning an NCAA bid and making a deep run into March. Best of all, he grew up in nearby Fairburn. Unfortunately, Walker Kessler is in Greensboro, North Carolina right now, preparing for the ACC Tournament semi-final with his UNC teammates.
I want to be clear here. Don’t blame the kids. Georgia has a team full of guys that play hard. They just don’t have anyone directing them. Throughout last season, they made the same types of mistakes over and over. Throughout this season, they made the same types of mistakes over and over.
“Tom Crean Basketball” is a free-wheeling open style of play. It’s an up-tempo philosophy predicated on fast-breaks, cuts towards the basket, and taking shots early in the possession. When the opponent is committing lots of turnovers and missing shots that result in long rebounds, Crean’s style can be a thing of beauty. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen often.
Crean’s teams often devolve into four guys standing around while one player tries to breakdown the entire defense. Crean rarely, if ever, calls a play from the sideline. Unfortunately, a team with a core of underclassmen needs some direction from their coach sometimes. There are moments in a game where tactical direction is needed, and this Georgia team sorely missed it time and again this season.
A team that started the year struggling to rebound, shoot from long range, and hit their free throws ended the season with the exact same problems. A team that made bad mental mistakes at inopportune times at the beginning of SEC play did the same thing at the end of conference play.
Crean campaigned for an NIT bid after the loss to Missouri on Thursday night, but it has become so frustrating to watch the product that Crean puts on the floor that I shuddered at the thought of watching Georgia play again.
When Crean was hired there was hope that his experience coaching big names like Dwayne Wade and Victor Oladipo would convince players from Atlanta’s deep talent pool to come to The Classic City. Crean has recruited well, but he hasn’t recruited enough talent to offset his own deficiencies as a head coach.
Crean isn’t a good enough tactician to draw up a game plan that’s going to exploit his opponent’s weaknesses, and he’s not a good enough recruiter to assemble a team that can just go and out athlete the competition. That’s the reality of the situation at this moment.I want to be clear that nothing would make me happier than Crean proving me wrong. I just don’t think he’s capable of doing so.
Towards the end of his tenure, Greg McGarity decided it was time to invest in the basketball program. Unfortunately, he gave 3.3 million to a guy who hasn’t given us a reason to believe that he can make the Dawgs into a winner. A coach with similar deficiencies would be bought out in a heartbeat if he lead the football program in Athens, but apathy rules when it comes to basketball.
Maybe a day will come where this program will be built into a real winner, and maybe that team will show a dormant fanbase how much fun can come from a deep run in March. If and when that happens, a ton of folks are going to start asking themselves why the hell they accepted so much less for so many years. Georgia could be as dominant in basketball as it has become in football. All the talent a college program could ever need is only 70 miles down the road.
But for now, Tom Crean is in charge, and the front porch closes when football season ends.