Chip Towers/Dawg Nation
New Georgia coach Tom Crean has the basketball wits and know-how to succeed on the court. Getting Atlanta's best players to buy in is his greatest challenge.

Getting it turned around with Atlanta’s AAU scene key to Tom Crean’s success at UGA

ATHENS — I love Tom Crean. Love him. He’s personable and funny, and he seems to be very forthright. As soon as it’s NCAA permissible, he says he wants reporters to attend practice. Can’t say I hear that often.

Beyond his personality, I don’t have any doubt that Crean’s a good coach. Everywhere he has been — Indiana and Marquette as a head coach and Michigan State as a Tom Izzo assistant — his teams have scored a lot of points and won games. When it comes to playing his five against the other team’s five, he’s going to be able to match wits with any of these SEC coaches.

At the end of the day, it always comes down to players. The team with the best players doesn’t always win, but it does the grand majority of the time. And the bottom-line reason Crean is now Georgia’s men’s basketball coach is that the Bulldogs didn’t have the best players.

Based on the events of the last few days, I’m not sure that’s going to change any time soon. Not right away at least. And I’ll have to give Crean some grace on that. I mean, he just got here. But what has gone down in recruiting so far has to be disheartening for those few but passionate fans who call themselves Georgia basketball fans.

Ashton Hagans-UGA-Georgia basketball
Five-star point guard Ashton Hagans, who was once committed to Georgia, pledged his services to Kentucky on Tuesday. (AJC)

I’d imagine most people who keep up with UGA sports are aware that Ashton Hagans committed to Kentucky on Tuesday. Hagans is a 5-star point guard from Covington. In fact, he is the top-ranked point guard in the country. More importantly, he once was committed to Georgia and former coach Mark Fox.

After Fox was fired, Hagans de-committed and said whatever happened with Jonas Hayes, the assistant coach who was recruiting him for Georgia, would factor into his final decision. It’s probably worth pointing out that Hayes decided to accept an assistant’s position at Xavier on Monday.

Related? Maybe, maybe not.

Hagans might’ve ended up at Kentucky anyway. The Wildcats didn’t recruit him until after Hagans de-committed from Georgia, and he didn’t have a committable offer until after Kentucky starting point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander decided to turn pro a day earlier.

I reached out to Chris Williams, Hagans’ AAU coach with Game Elite, to try to gain some insight on this.

“I can’t say he wouldn’t have gone to Georgia if Jonas had been there or not,” Williams told me. “I can say that Jonas going to Xavier didn’t have anything [to do] with him going to Kentucky. The timing with that was just a coincidence.”

Suffice it to say, Georgia would have had a better shot of landing Hagans if both Fox and Hayes had remained there.

But it goes beyond that. For whatever reason, there has been less publicity — locally at least — about another blue-chip prospect from Atlanta landing at Kentucky. On Monday, E.J. Montgomery, a 5-star prospect from Marietta’s Wheeler High School, committed to the Wildcats. The 6-foot-10 forward chose Kentucky over Duke. Apparently, the Bulldogs were never even in the discussion.

Add those two players to the parade of prospects who have left the state to attend traditional basketball powers, from Atlanta’s Wendell Carter Jr., who averaged 13.5 points and 9.1 rebounds as a freshman at Duke last season, all the way back to Kenny “Sky” Walker in 1982.

This, above all else, is what Crean has to change.

Granted, these “basketball-first” schools always will have their special allure. UGA — or Georgia Tech, for that matter — can never expect to keep the most regal programs from raiding from their home-state talent pool. But the Bulldogs have to be able to get their share, particularly at positions and in years of particular need.

Last time I checked, Georgia is desperate for a point guard. With Yante Maten headed for pro ball, the Bulldogs badly need post scoring. Meanwhile, the two best players in the state at those respective positions are going to play for an SEC rival.

Now the whole one-and-done phenomenon adds another layer to this discussion. Georgia can’t expect to build its program as a six-month weigh station to the NBA the way Kentucky and Duke do. Hopefully with the continuing FBI investigation, the NBA Players’ Association and the NCAA finally can get together to do something to fix that.

But clearly Georgia and athletic director Greg McGarity are serious about being nationally competitive in college basketball. Crean’s mere presence and his $3.2 million annual salary are evidence of that. The Bulldogs have invested $8 million into facility improvements the last couple of years and $20 million in this century alone.

And you can bet Crean knows this. As he told reporters in the gathering we had Tuesday at the Coliseum Training Facility, he desperately wanted to keep Hayes on. He had worked closely with Hayes the last two weeks and knew immediately what an important piece he was. In the end, however, Hayes wants to become a head coach one day and needed to expand his basketball horizons in order to do that. It was his choice, and it was the right one.

Meanwhile, Crean already has hired Chad Dollar of the famous Atlanta basketball family as his only assistant so far. Dollar is a 17-year college coaching veteran, the son of Douglass High School coach Don Dollar and brother of former star player Cameron Dollar, now an assistant at Washington. There probably isn’t a person in America more familiar with the inner workings of the Atlanta AAU scene than Chad Dollar at this moment. So that was a start.

They both had high school addresses and coaches, but Hagans played for the Georgia Elite and Montgomery played for the Atlanta Celtics. Basketball stars in Atlanta also reside with the Georgia Stars and AOT. Like it or not, that’s where the best talent is.

And that’s where Crean is going to have to make a difference if his Georgia program is to have the success beyond what has been the established tradition.

“I agree,” Williams said. “It’s just about having relationships with all the best guys. If the head coach at Georgia can do that, I think they could have a great program. Chad Dollar should help. He has good relationships in Atlanta.”

As for Crean not being able to keep Hagans or Montgomery away from Kentucky, Williams said, “I just believe it was too late in the game.”

For sure, it will take Crean a minute to build those relationships. So he deserves a pass for not landing Atlanta’s latest 5-star phenoms. But if he’s to break the cycle that has been Georgia basketball the last couple of decades, he’ll need to find a way to dam the Atlanta talent leak.

Crean knows that better than anyone.

“Here’s what I think,” he said Tuesday. “People in this state have been recruited by Georgia. They know about Georgia. They know more about Georgia than I do at this point. We need to get people on campus. It’s not just seeing them at their place, it’s them seeing us. … We need them to come in and see these workouts and look at film and see how we’re going to play. I think that’s the most important thing.”

Easier said than done, it seems.