ATHENS — So, unless the UGA student body decides to suddenly boycott basketball and the city of Athens rolls up the sidewalks early Wednesday night, Tom Crean’s Georgia Bulldogs are going to establish a single-season attendance record at Stegeman Coliseum when the Auburn Tigers come to town.
And that’s with another game to go. The Bulldogs’ final home game is a week from Wednesday, on March 6, against Missouri. And unless Georgia wins the SEC Tournament the following week there will be no postseason play in 2019. The Bulldogs’ win-loss record is one of the program’s worst in decades
That’s what makes the attendance record in this first season under Crean all the more amazing. It’s not like Georgia fans are being positively reinforced for their loyalty with victories from the home team. In fact, it has been a month since the Bulldogs won at The Steg, last tasting success on Jan. 26 when they defeated Texas 98-88 on Jan. 26 in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
Since then, Georgia has lost eight in a row and dropped a record 12 SEC games in a row since beating Vanderbilt 82-63 in the second game of the New Year on Jan. 9.
Yet the UGA fans keep coming, spinning the turnstiles at the rate of 8,912 spectators per contest, or 133,683 in all. And that’s actual butts in the seats of the 10,500-seat arena, not tickets sold. That is 5,887 fans shy of the all-time attendance record. Advance ticket sales for Wednesday’s game against the rival Tigers is already well beyond that and does not include any from UGA students, who have flocked to the Coliseum in droves for the Crean Show this season.
“I wouldn’t think we’d set it this season,” Crean said when asked if he couldn’t imagine the fan turnout this season to be what it’s been. “I thought we would set it at one point, but not the first year. Now we have to keep it going. I had no idea what it was. I wouldn’t of taken the bet and I don’t think Vegas would of put odds on it either.”
Part of the draw for the Bulldogs has been just the sheer newness of the Crean regime and his team’s “fast and loose” style of play. Another factor has been the creative and aggressive marketing of the program by the athletic association and Crean himself.
A former coach at the hoop havens of Indiana and Marquette, Crean is a gregarious and infectious leader and spent a lot of time and energy selling his vision to students well before the season started. And they’ve stuck with the team despite the many setbacks.
Despite all the losing, Georgia players say they sense an enthusiasm and energy around the program. They encounter it directly through interactions with fellow students on campus all week.
“You can feel it, you feel it every day,” said Georgia junior Jordan Harris, a 6-foot-4 guard from Iron City. “You can feel it more toward game day. The closer you get to the game, the more you feel it. I think it is a blessing for everyone around here. I think Georgia basketball has been needing this for a long time. Everything is different now. It is even crazier to me because of our record. But obviously people do not take the losses as deeply as you think they would. Winning would obviously help, but as long as they see you playing and competing hard, I think the fans appreciate that.”
The Bulldogs are actually playing better, as well. After a bit of a performance lull the first of February, Georgia is playing much more effectively and efficiently of late. That has resulted in some excruciatingly close losses. The Bulldogs dropped the last two games to Mississippi State and Ole Miss by one point each and the last three by a total of six points.
That represents a marked improvement over the way Georgia was playing the last time it met the Tigers in early January over at their place. The Bulldogs stayed reasonably close throughout before Auburn pulled away at the end of what was a 93-78 final.
As has been their style under coach Bruce Pearl, the Tigers (18-9, 7-7) are also a fast-moving, quick-shooting, high-scoring bunch. And they’ll be supremely motivated for Wednesday’s nationally-televised game (9 p.m., , TV: ESPNU; radio: WSB 750-AM & 95.5 FM). Auburn finds itself square on the NCAA bubble in the middleof what has been an extremely competitive basketball league.
“They are well coached; they are extremely fast; they shoot the three at the beginning, middle and end of the clock,” Crean said of the Tigers. “They are tremendous with the shot clock and are great offensive rebounding team. That is something we had issues with last time against them.”
The Bulldogs are motivated for completely different set of reasons. They just want to win, period. Not to mention that they’d love to reward home-crowd’s unwavering loyalty this season.
Georgia’s marketing and promotions machine is leaving nothing to chance. For Wednesday night’s late-night tip, students are being lured by several promotions. First of all, the first 750 to arrive will receive a free T-shirt, a free biscuit from Bojangles and will be offered the opportunity to sit in the arena’s lower bowl.
Also, two students will be selected via the “Commit To The G” student rewards app that was created this year to take part in a “Make It or Take It” contest. The students will take part in a coin flip. The student who wins the flip will be given the chance to dribble the length of the floor and make a layup in nine seconds for $2,500. If the student successfully makes the layup, they will be given a chance to make a 3-pointer to double their money to $5,000. If the student decides not to attempt the 3-pointer, the second student will have the chance to shoot a 3-pointer and take the $2,500 reward from the other student.
Such promotions have been a regular part of the game-day program for students this season. But more than that has been the run-and-gun style of play favored by Crean. His is a philosophy of get the ball, get it down the court as fast as possible and shoot the first reasonably open shot that comes about from the motion offense.
At times, that works fabulously well and can look quite impressive. But with a roster of filled with players recruited to run the previous staffs more plotting style of half-court set plays, it hasn’t always been ideal. Therefore, the Bulldogs have found themselves committing too many turnovers and on the wrong end of some long runs as it tried to operate at a faster pace than their skills were capable of keeping up.
As a result, Georgia (10-17, 1-13 SEC) enters the final two weeks of the regular season ranked last in the SEC in scoring margin (minus 1.4 points), last in scoring defense (75.2 ppg) and, of course, in 13th-place in the 14-team SEC with its worst conference record in more than a half-century.
Then again, 13th is where Georgia was predicted to finish at SEC Media Days in the preseason. But Crean didn’t believe it then and he has a hard time processing it now.
“You have to have that belief,” the effusive Crean said. “It is not a make-believe belief or a tell-the-media belief. We’ve had some rough roads and different experiences this season. I don’t think I had any illusions that it was going to be easy. But until you get into the league you don’t realize how hard it really is.”
So far, the struggle hasn’t stopped the crowds from coming. The fans remain hungry for something to celebrate.