ATHENS –First-year Georgia coach Tom Crean was still at Stegeman Coliseum Saturday night when he received an unexpected text from a very important person. It was from UGA President Jere Morehead.
For Crean, it couldn’t have come at a better time. The Bulldogs had just dropped an excruciating 76-74 decision to Arizona State after leading their 20th-ranked visitors by double-digits most of the game.
“I mean, it was right after the game,” Crean shared on Monday, as Georgia (5-4) prepared for Tuesday night’s matchup against Oakland (Mich.) University (7 p.m., WSB radio 750-AM & 95.5 FM). “And it wasn’t some, ‘Hey, hang in there,’ but real words.”
Crean said Morehead complimented him on “the feeling and the atmosphere” of the game, which 9,018 people to The Steg on the first weekend of UGA’s holiday break.
“I won’t be happy until we are selling out every game and they’ll come; it’ll just take a little time,” Crean said before Monday’s practice. “But to have that type of energy and that type of crowd every night is tremendous step in the right direction. To have two crowds over 9,000 and to have the fans engaged in the ways that they are is huge. We just have to keep that energy going. We really need them to keep helping us in those tough situations in games.”
The energetic crowd wasn’t enough to carry the Bulldogs against a Pac-12 team they led by 18 points in the first half and by 14 at halftime. Instead, the Sun Devils outscored Georgia 43-27 in the second half, helped by a cascade of UGA turnovers and missed shots.
But 48 hours later, Crean was the epitome of optimism and positivity, as he addressed reporters in the Coliseum Practice Facility. While Georgia still has many basketball fundamentals to fix, Crean said he has been “blown away” by the support his program is getting, both from the fans and the administration.
Crean’s previous head coaching stops have been at basketball-first powerhouses Marquette and Indiana, including a 10-week stretch as the nation’s No. 1-ranked team with the Hoosiers. But he contended Monday that the infrastructure and support at Georgia is even better. He said he started thinking about UGA as a possible destination while having an off-air discussion with co-host Seth Greenberg while working as a television analyst last year.
“He said, ‘Their facilities are better than what you had at Indiana,'” Crean shared. “That always registered in my mind, right, because he had just made a trip to Georgia and he said ‘it has all you want.’ You want to be in a great working environment and a great atmosphere.”
That brought Crean back to that text and the administrative support that it represented.
“Let me tell you what, I am not used to having an athletic director that is waiting for me after games,” he said of Georgia’s Greg McGarity. “I am not used to having him call me with things after the game. I’m not used to being in a situation where I am getting a text from the president after the game. … To me, that is the value and that is what, for a person like me, who went through the nine years I had at Indiana. So much good, some not so much.
“The bottom line is, if you get … where they truly care, that is what we are looking for. Get somewhere, where you align, where you are together and working together for the common goal, and people care, right, inside of your administration. That is what we have. When you get something like that, that drives the energy in the inspiration up in me.”
All that’s well and good, but sooner or later you have to win. And the Bulldogs fell short Saturday on what could have been a program-propping victory.
Meanwhile, there’s going to be nothing automatic about recording a win against Oakland. Georgia will be playing the Golden Grizzlies (4-7) for the third time in the last three years Tuesday night. They split the first two games, with each winning on its home floor.
This year’s Oakland team is like those other ones under the command of longtime respected coach Greg Kampe. That is, it scores a lot. The Grizzlies average the exact same points per game as Georgia (78.7) and are led by a difficult inside-outside matchup in 6-foot-7 forward Xavier Hill-Mais (22.9 points per game).
The Bulldogs will need to shake off the concussion of last Saturday’s collapse and give Oakland their full and complete focus Tuesday night.
“We’re definitely confident in ourselves,” said senior E’Torrion Wilridge, who had six points in the loss to the Sun Devils. “We know (Arizona State is) a very dynamic team that has some really good players and we got on our heels too much. We’ve just got to learn a lot from our past mistakes and just keep getting better.”
Crean said he’s seen considerable progress from the first to ninth game, and he expects it to continue. Recent setbacks aside, he still believes Georgia basketball to be primed for explosive growth.
“Hey, they’ve got tradition here. They’ve had success here, and not just in basketball,” Crean said. “All you have to look across the street (at football) or in numerous directions from here. Obviously football is the biggest, but to see tremendous tradition and how people care here, you want to be working with people like that.”