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Given the large salary of his deal, what do you think are reasonable expectations for Tom Crean over the course of his six-year deal?
— Matt Berry
This is a good question to ask during the week of the Final Four – an event that seems so far from Georgia’s grasp, except when you look at who survived to advance to San Antonio and who came so close.
We can look at Loyola-Chicago and Sister Jean and say, “Hey what about UGA and Sweaterman? ” But the mid-major comparison is always more risky, as you’re talking about schools — Loyola, George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth, Xavier, Gonzaga and such — that don’t have to budget for football, can win a weaker league and then go on an NCAA run. That’s not diminishing the accomplishment. It’s just different from the challenge for a school like Georgia.
Texas Tech, on the other hand, is an apt comparison. It’s another football-first school without a huge basketball following in a state where there is definitely basketball talent. This is not a school that while it has made 16 NCAA tournament appearances – four more than Georgia – had never even made an Elite Eight before this season. Chris Beard, two years after taking over for Tubby Smith, got the Red Raiders within a game of the Final Four.
Florida State, another Elite Eight team this year, is another good comparison. It has made one Final Four appearance, just like Georgia, but has been to slightly more Sweet 16s (five, compared to two for Georgia).
This is essentially the situation that Crean inherits at Georgia: A school that has had fleeting success in basketball, and while it does have plenty of talent in the state, that talent isn’t necessarily easy to bring to Athens.
Football players in this state grow up wanting to play between the hedges. They see the flagship state school playing in front of 93,000 excited fans every Saturday and in big games on national television. It’s the place to be.
Basketball players in this state haven’t grown up in that tradition. That’s why for years players have gone to the blue schools — Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina — and were poached by others too. That doesn’t mean Georgia shouldn’t have gotten a few more of those players along the way. But the tradition of Georgia basketball just isn’t the same as it is for football. Not even close.
Lately, Mark Fox and his staff – Phillip Pearson and then Jonas Hayes – had gotten some traction. They recruited some really good pieces the past few years — Yante Maten, Turtle Jackson, Rayshaun Hammonds, Nicolas Claxton and Tyree Crump — and had gotten commitments from Ashton Hagans and Elias King before the coaching uncertainty.
Georgia could be an elite basketball program if it got a good share of the top recruits in its state every year. But can it run the table the way Kirby Smart has in football? Or even get the same share that Mark Richt typically got? Most in the basketball industry don’t believe it’s possible if you have a coach who’s playing by the rules.
Now it’s up to Crean to try to change that dynamic. Or to improve the program through a combination of recruiting and coaching.
You allude to his salary of $3.2 million, which for now is the second-highest among SEC basketball coaches. I’m not sure that was so much a statement of “be the best SEC program beyond Kentucky” as it was market value. But Georgia was willing to shell out that kind of money because it wanted an experienced coach whom they thought could take the program further.
Fox improved the program. There’s no arguing that. He was fired because he hit a wall, and now it’s up to Crean to break through.
That ultimately is where Crean will be judged. If he merely contends for an NCAA bid every year, that won’t be taking the program beyond where Fox had it. If he puts Georgia in the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis – let’s say twice every three-year cycle – and wins a game during the process, then that’s taking the program further.
And if Crean gets Georgia to the Sweet 16, even just once, then it’s a success. And if you have a team good enough to get that far, then you have a team good enough to go even further.
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