ATHENS — Let’s talk some hoops.
To those four words, DawgNation’s esteemed general manager B.J. Sweeney just cringed. He’d just as soon us not write anything about hoops right now because if it gets any reaction at all it’s usually negative. And Mr. Sweeney is very much a positive guy.
But that’s where we’ve gotten with Georgia basketball at this time and place in history. As the saying goes, there’s just not much to write home about, and that goes for women’s basketball as well as the men’s team. That said, I do think it’s important to assess the situations on the occasion of both programs’ seasons coming to a close.
To refresh those of you who might have tuned out here of late, the men’s team under the direction of first-year coach Tom Crean just closed out the program’s worst season in conference play in 45 years (2-16). They have at least one more game against Missouri in the dreaded Wednesday night play-in game in the SEC Tournament in Nashville. But unless a tornado rocks Bridgestone Arena and Sundiata Gaines parachutes in to play point guard, that’ll be it for the Bulldogs, which would mean 11-21 overall.
On the women’s side, coach Joni Taylor’s fourth team left a lot of room for improvement, too. The Lady Dogs finished 18-12 (9-7 SEC). Having been left out of the NCAA Tournament for only the fifth time in school history — but the second time since Hall of Famer Andy Landers stepped down just four years ago — Taylor in the immediate aftermath of a first-round bounce by 10th-seeded Arkansas in last week’s SEC Tournament in Greenville, S.C., chose to decline the offer that surely would have come to play in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament
“Really unfortunate that our season is ending today,” Taylor said. “The NIT is a great tournament and there’s a lot of great teams that play in it. Again, you look at Georgia basketball and what we’ve done, we come to Georgia to play in the NCAA tournament. So we will not take a bid to the NIT if given one.”
Crean’s Bulldogs should be so lucky. All they’ve done is record one of the worst seasons in program history. Granted, Crean employs a system that doesn’t fit his current roster of players. Then again, isn’t the point to win with what you’ve got? And now that it has lost Rayshaun Hammonds to a foot injury for the rest of the season, Georgia is no longer even competitive. The 25-point loss to Missouri in which they scored only 39 points at home on Senior Night bordered on shameful.
Then we hear this from Turtle Jackson in the postgame: “I would not say we are disappointed. That is a negative word. We try to take the positive within everything.”
I don’t know about you, but it might be nice to see one of those guys be mad about losing. But they’re good sports, no doubt.
So let’s drill down on these two programs just a minute. I have to admit, I didn’t pay the closest of attention to the Lady Dogs. My job is to cover the men’s team and turn my attention to the women when it’s merited. That it hasn’t been merited very much these last few years is part of the problem.
I haven’t watched Taylor coach close enough to weigh in on her inherent coaching abilities. I know Landers, one of the greatest women’s coaches of all time, was glad she got the job. And the people who do follow the team closely believe strongly in her ability to get the ship turned around.
But the buzz I heard coming into the season was this was supposed to be one of those red-letter years when we started see the Lady Dogs live up to past glories.
“A very disappointing year, no doubt,” play-by-play man Jeff Dantzler told me. “But everybody close to the program is firmly behind Joni and confident she’ll get us back to the elite.”
That needs to hurry up and happen. With four years under her belt now, Taylor is 81-44 overall and 34-27 in SEC play. Meanwhile, where the Lady Dogs for decades almost always played in the shadow of only Pat Summit’s Tennessee, now South Carolina, Mississippi State and some others seem to have supplanted them. And last I checked the Gamecocks just inked the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class again.
But, in her defense, Taylor has encountered some misfortune. Injuries were again part of the team’s story this season, with guard Que Morrison and forward Malury Bates being sideline for long periods with injuries. And, of course, Taylor endured most of the season in the second-and third-trimester of a pregnancy that delivered her second child last month. To her infinite credit, she coached her team to a victory the night before her baby was born, and then sat on the bench in a observer’s role the very next game.
The fact is, carrying the generous contract that Athletic Director Greg McGarity awarded Taylor with from the outset and then extended and raised last year ($750,000 annually through 2024), the expectations are higher than sitting out two of every four NCAA tournaments.
So should they be for Crean’s Bulldogs. That is, after all, why he was brought on to succeed Mark Fox.
Fox led Georgia to its longest period of sustained success since Hugh Durham. But while 20-win seasons were his standard, he could never get the Bulldogs past the first round of the NCAA tournament — or very far in any tournament — during his nine seasons at the helm. That said, while he couldn’t get Georgia to the highest levels of college basketball, it also never threatened the lowest.
The Bulldogs have had only one team in history win fewer than two conference contests since they’ve played double-digit games and that was the 1955-56. This season tied the 1973-74 team for worst record against an 18-game SEC schedule. Granted, it was a strong year in the league, but few people foresaw this kind of season coming.
Some did. Georgia was picked to finish 13th out of 14 teams at SEC Media Days back in October. But the team itself never believed it’d be this bad, nor did the people that cover it.
With another game still to prepare for, Crean’s not ready to reflect.
“Leadership is vision, okay; leadership is perspective,” Crean said before the last loss to South Carolina. “But coaching is urgency. Coaching is having energy and coaching to fix what you’ve got to fix right now. Right? And as the head coach of the program, you’ve got to wear both hats. You’ve got to wear the leadership hat and you’ve got to wear the coaching hat. So right now I don’t have any perspective. I’m wearing a coaching hat.”
To be sure, there were some missteps along the way for Crean. His profuse apology aside, Crean’s infamous comments after the lopsided loss to Ole Miss about having to play the players he has may have eroded team morale more than anybody is willing to admit. But about that, Crean made the very conscious decision not only to keep the players that he inherited from Fox’s roster, but he also maxed out the signees he could bring in the April recruiting class.
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen what kind of players JoJo Toppin, Tye Fagan, Amanze Ngumezi and Ignas Sarguinas turn out to be. The early returns are not promising. Those four players have averaged 7.7 points between them and only Fagan has found anything resembling a regular role in the rotation.
The counter to that is, Nic Claxton, Hammonds and even Derek Ogbeide have flourished offensively under Crean’s guidance. And it cannot be understated the excitement and enthusiasm Crean has brought to the program. To set an attendance record during this motley season was a magical feat of Harry Houdini proportions.
Optimists will point to the recruiting victories and the bright future that will surely bring. Georgia quite famously landed a commitment from Anthony “Antman” Edwards, one of the Atlanta’s elusive AAU stars and one of the top two or three prospects in America, according to all the outlets that rate such things. The Bulldogs have signed two other Top 100 players besides, with another one or two on the way, as well.
However, at this writing, Antman’s pledge remains only a non-binding commitment. And even if he does show up, the one-and-done phenomenon doesn’t always pan out. Just ask LSU, which was unable to find success with the Ben Simmons experience. And now the program finds itself all twisted up in a mess with the FBI and the NCAA when it “took recruiting to a new level” under coach Will Wade.
That is not at all to say anything of the sort awaits Georgia. It’s really all just to say how hard it is to get to the top tier in college basketball — or stay at the top, in the case of UGA’s storied women’s program. As the well-versed Dantzler said toward the end of our recent hoops-based conversation, in college basketball “it’s easy to get bad and really hard to get good.”
To that, true basketball fans who hold UGA in allegiance say, “Amen!”