ATHENS — Nine months after being named Georgia’s basketball coach, Tom Crean is still campaigning hard for his new program.
The Bulldogs (5-3) are getting ready to play host to Arizona State at Stegeman Coliseum, the first of a set of four tough games for the remainder of December. He knows his fledgling, young team is going to need all the help it can get against the No. 20-ranked Sun Devils (7-1), and Crean is a big believer in big crowds being a big help.
The trouble is, UGA just broke for the holiday. Fall semester exams wrapped up on Wednesday and most of the school’s 30,000 students have abandoned campus.
But that hasn’t deterred Crean. Ever the optimistic salesman, he’s stumping for a packed house for Saturday evening’s 6 p.m. tilt (TV/radio: SEC Network/WSB 750-AM & 95.5 FM).
“It’s important we get a sellout crowd; that’s real important to help energize us,” Crean said before the Bulldogs practiced Thursday morning. “If you beat Arizona State you’re doing something, because they’re good. They’re going to win a ton of games. They’re a legit team, if not the front-runner to win that league (Pac-12). … It’s extremely important, no doubt about it. We’re playing an outstanding team.”
That they are. The Sun Devils, who are expected to contend for the Pac-12 title this season, just lost for the first time all season and were impressive even in defeat. They led No. 6-ranked Nevada by 15 points in the first half and by 12 at halftime before finally succumbing to the Wolf Pack 72-66 in a game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. As has been the case in nearly every game this season, Arizona State was led by dynamic freshman Lugunentz Dort. The 6-foot-4 freshman guard, who averages 22 a game, had 24 against Nevada, a team many are expecting to play deep into March.
Georgia doesn’t harbor such expectations right at this minute. The Bulldogs have wilted in the face of their most intense challenges to date. They offered little resistance to 16th-ranked Clemson (64-49) and Georgia State (91-67) in the final two rounds of the Cayman Islands Classic and got down by a bunch quickly before rallying to put a scare in Temple on the road (81-77).
But those games all took place out of town. The Bulldogs are home for four of the next six, starting with the Sun Devils, and home is where the W’s reside. Georgia is 4-0 at home this season, albeit against lower-tier competition.
While it always is and will be about the team that takes the floor, Crean believes a great home-court atmosphere can help good teams play great.
“It’s something we’ve been addressing since March 15th,” said Crean, referring to the day he was hired at UGA. “We’ve got to have a tremendous crowd. If we’re going to build this program to where everybody wants it to be and recruit the way everybody wants us to recruit and the way we want to recruit, the atmosphere of games has to be phenomenal. It’s not just how great the music is and how wonderful the band and the cheerleaders and the dance squads are — they are. We’ve got to have people there. We’ve got to have it loud.”
So Crean is not above creating any sort of promotion to get butts in the seats. Saturday is no exception. It’s “Tacky Christmas Sweater” Night. Fans are welcomed to wear their own tacky Christmas sweaters to the game, but the first 1,000 spectators to show up will get a free tacky Christmas sweater T-shirt.
Crean brought one of the T-shirts with him to this Thursday’s press conference to discuss the Arizona State game.
“I don’t think I’ll wear one, but I like it,” he said. “Very, very creative. I’ve seen some ugly Christmas sweaters before. This one’s pretty cool.”
The gimmicks are fun, but Crean knows better than anybody his squad has to play better and beat some quality opponents to keep folks coming back. Beating a team of the ilk of Arizona State would be great first step.
To do that, Georgia’s has clean up its game. Averaging nearly 17 turnovers a game, the Bulldogs can start by taking better care of the basketball. Crean also is looking for improved offensive rebounding, better free throw shooting and less fouling.
All those traits need to be present against the Sun Devils, who are averaging 14 offensive rebounds and 29 free throws a night.
Controlling Dort will, of course, be a key. A Top 30 national recruit from Montreal (who spent two years playing basketball in Florida), it was Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley who beat out several basketball powerhouses for Dort’s services.
The freshman hasn’t disappointed. Equally adept at shooting 3s or driving to the basket, Dort had a 33-point game against Utah State and has scored 24 points or more in half the Sun Devils’ game. Built like a football player, he’s an equally effective on-the-ball defender.
“He’s a solid player,” said Georgia sophomore Nicolas Claxton, who is the only SEC player to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. “We’ve game-planned for him. We know he’s going to come in here and play hard. They’ll be a strong test but we’ll be ready for them.”
It won’t be easy for the Bulldogs to be sharp. Saturday will be 12 days since their last game due to final exams. But Crean has been working them hard in practice, particularly this week as testing concluded midweek.
After consecutive days of what players characterized as “very intense” practices and scrimmages, the Bulldogs are ready to play somebody else. Their hope is that their fan base will also be ready on Saturday as well.
Georgia traditionally has drawn pretty good crowds to Stegeman for SEC play, which annually begins after the New Year. But due in part to the excitement of Crean’s hire and his boundless promotional presence, the Bulldogs already have established a school record by selling out three regular-season games before the season even started. They’ve since added two more sellouts to the ledger, giving UGA its most capacity crowds for men’s basketball since the 2002-03 season.
And Georgia is drawing pretty well early on this season. It has averaged 7,240 in the four games so far, including 9,018 for the season opener against Savannah State. That was most for a UGA home opener since Dominique Wilkins’ sophomore season in 1981.
The Bulldogs could use a good, strong representation on Saturday as well. Crean believes it can make a difference.
“There’s no question (Stegeman) can be a tremendously tough place to play with 10½-thousand in there and the acoustics the way that they are,” Crean said. “We’ve just got to put people in there. There’s been a lot of tickets sold. … But if we want the level of program we want here, we’ve got to have great crowds.”