ATHENS — Georgia does not enjoy the history or fan support of the previous two programs that Tom Crean took over. And yet the team Crean inherits at Georgia is almost certainly the best of the three he has taken over.
Crean’s debut as a head coach was at Marquette, which had gone 14-15 he was hired. His first two teams won just 15 games, then in Year 3 they won 26 and the next year they won 27 and made the Final Four. (It helped that Dwyane Wade joined in Year 3.)
At Indiana, Crean took over a roster that was depleted and a program that had just been hit by the NCAA with three years of probation. Those first three years saw win totals of 6 (the fewest in school history), 10 and 12. Then Cody Zeller arrived and things took off for Crean and Indiana.
It may not take as long at Georgia.
Yes, the Bulldogs lose Yante Maten, the AP SEC Player of the Year. (And a player who chose Georgia over Crean and Indiana four years ago, as Crean pointed out Friday.) They also lose starting small forward Juwan Parker.
But as long as there’s no attrition — and that’s always a possibility with a new coach — Georgia is due to return 59.5 percent of their scoring and 68.9 percent of their rebounding. The players who return also account for 72 percent of the 3-pointers Georgia made last season.
“We’re going to shoot the 3,” Crean said. “We’re not going to lead the country in attempts. But I certainly hope we can lead the country in percentage.”
Mark Fox was not fired by Georgia because his teams didn’t win. They just didn’t win enough. They were 18-15 in his last season, a fifth straight year of winning 18 or more games.
The loss of Maten and Parker, and a coaching change, will affect continuity. But Crean appears to know that there is a potentially strong nucleus of players. And potentially a strong player or two on the way.
Crean specifically mentioned Nicolas Claxton, the lanky 6-foot-11 freshman who showed flashes this past season. Another freshman, Rayshaun Hammonds, was a top-60 recruit last year. Point guard Teshaun Hightower, yet another freshman, came on near the end of the season, playing more minutes in several games than starting point guard Turtle Jackson.
There’s also shooting guard Tyree Crump, who as a sophomore was second on the team in 3-pointers. And post player Derek Ogbeide may have had an uneven junior season, but he is a rebounding machine.
“There is no question that there is talent, and there is versatility, and there’s a lot of youth inside of this program,” Crean said. “They defend, and they know how to run offense, they move the ball. I mean they’ve been well-coached. C’mon, I could go down the line there’s no doubt about that.
“And getting to know them, and seeing where that versatility could go, and seeing a level of them taking that next step because there’s so much youth. Continuing to build the skills, continuing to build the shooting, continuing to build the strength and conditioning, those aspects of it. And then the real assessment: What do we need for now? Because there’s a lot of players here.”
When there are coaching changes, teams often take a step back because coaches are willing to take a short-term hit in order to instill their program. Crean has a six-year contract. He doesn’t necessarily need to win right away. And his emphasis will be different from Fox, who was defense-oriented. Crean wants his teams to play good defense, but his teams were always known more for their scoring.
But when asked about the short-term vs. long-term on Friday, Crean didn’t commit either way. He said he thinks he’ll have a “much better indication” in a few months after seeing how hard the players work. He also made clear he’s already been studying his new team closely.
“I’m not one of those coaches to say, no we’re not looking at last year. Because we’ve already looked at last year. I’ve been watching it all year. And I’m going to do it even more so,” Crean said. “And we’re going to have a real good gauge on where they’re at based on what we see, and keep starting to put those details in to help. But the foundation is here, we’ve just got to build it up.”