ATHENS — Tom Crean is not one for hyperbole, but the Georgia basketball coach wasn’t afraid to say what everyone was thinking on Wednesday night.
“We needed something good to happen for us,” Crean said, as joyous to share a milestone 400th career victory with his family and the Georgia basketball fans as he was relieved to see his new-look squad get a quality win.
“We needed a win to validate how hard this team has worked.”
The Bulldogs (3-5) also needed a win to restore faith in the direction of the program after a 68-65 home loss to Wofford on Sunday.
Georgia snapped a four-game losing streak with the 82-79 upset over No. 18 Memphis (5-2), sweeping a home-and-home series against coach Penny Hardaway.
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It was just two years ago that Crean and Georgia went into FedEx Forum in Memphis and beat the No 9-ranked Tigers 65-62.
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The win at Memphis in January of 2020 marked UGA’s first road win over a Top 10 team in more than 15 years. It was only the second road win over a Top 25 non-conference opponent in program history.
But this win on Wednesday night may prove bigger if the Bulldogs can build on it.
Kairo Oquendo, an explosive 6-foot-4 talent Crean identified and recruited out of Florida SouthWestern (JC), scored a team-high 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting against Memphis.
Oquendo also made the play of the game with a steal and breakaway dunk in the final minutes.
“Kario is just scratching the surface,” said Crean, who watched Oquendo struggle in his first two games at the D-1 level, scoring 9 points with 3 turnovers in the opener against Florida International, and no points with 3 turnovers in 26 minutes at Cincinnati in the second game of the season.
The version of Kario Oquendo that sat behind the microphone six games later, having outplayed Memphis’ talented roster, was a different young man.
“We feel like we can play with anybody,” Oquendo said matter-of-factly. “It was a different type of energy tonight. I felt this was the hardest we played all season.
“We have to piggyback off this and keep it going.”
Indeed, it’s Year Four for Crean, and new athletic director Josh Brooks is going to want to see more progress in the program when it comes time for season-ending evaluations.
To date, Crean has improved the Bulldogs’ SEC win total from his first year (2) to the second (5) and third (7) after taking over a depressed basketball culture in 2018.
Georgia has yet to make the NCAA tournament under Crean — Year Two, with Anthony Edwards, was cut short by the Covid pandemic after UGA beat Ole Miss to open the SEC tourney..
Crean has, however, shown he can recruit and develop elite talent.
Edwards, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, chose Georgia over every school in the nation. Edwards left UGA praising his experience and the lessons learned from Crean.
One year earlier, Crean helped polish the skills of Nicolas Claxton, the No. 31 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.
More than once, every Georgia basketball fan wondered what might have been if Claxton had stuck around for his junior season and teamed with Edwards.
College free agency
Now, of course, Division I programs AVERAGE more than half (7) of their rosters turning over from one season to the next via the transfer portal and the NCAA granting immediate eligibility.
What amounts to college basketball free agency has changed the game, as one look at the Georgia roster might indicate.
Crean has 10 newcomers playing for the Bulldogs this season, seven acquired via the NCAA transfer portal.
Recruiting remains the cornerstone to building a solid basketball foundation, and that’s why it was more than noteworthy to see true freshman Christian Wright go off on the Tigers.
Wright, pressed into an emergency start with veteran Gonzaga point guard transfer Aaron Cook too sick to play, scored 17 points, pulled down 6 rebounds and dished out 3 assists against Memphis in 38 minutes.
Perhaps most impressively Wright had just one turnover for a UGA team that entered the night 303rd in the nation in turnover margin.
It’s a sign of the transfer times that basketball juggernauts North Carolina and Michigan are ranked even lower in that category.
No doubt, college basketball is in transition, and the ability to identify and pull talent from the transfer portal — and have a system conducive to immediate success — is a new requirement for success.
Crean’s great rep
Crean could be in a great position to capitalize with his reputation for developing NBA talent -- Dwyane Wade, Victor Oladipo, Yogi Ferrell, Cody Zeller, Claxton and Edwards-- and his friendly, uptempo style of play.
Many of the top players in Georgia are identified early through Atlanta’s AAU ranks and recruited heavily before leaving the state.
But the transfer portal allows for a return “home” to play for Crean while adding a degree from a top 20 public university.
Georgia center Braelen Bridges and forward Jailyn Ingram are two such examples, transferring in from UIC and Florida Atlantic.
The 6-11 Bridges held his own in the paint scoring 10 points and grabbing 4 rebounds against the long, athletic Tigers.
Ingram, who chose basketball over major FBS football offers, muscled his way to 10 points and 6 rebounds.
Beating a basketball blue blood like Memphis is a sure way for Crean to start packing Stegeman Coliseum, which had a respectable mid-week crowd of 7.147 on Wednesday.
Crean had been saying all along that this team was the hardest working group that he has had, and that, eventually, the shots would start to fall.
And the shots will need to keep falling, and the team will need to keep improving, with Crean in search of what would be his 10th NCAA tournament appearance.