How Did We Get Here?
Mark Fox found a cruising altitude, but suddenly, that altitude wasn’t good enough.
Over the last five years, Georgia finished 78th, 35th, 71st, 61st, and 65th in KenPom. Outside of a good year in 2014-15, resulting in one of just two NCAA Tournament bids in Fox’s nine years at Georgia, that’s pretty remarkable consistency. Georgia’s SEC records in those years: 12-6, 11-7, 10-8, 9-9, 7-11. As the Bulldogs remained a team that was consistently on the margins of NCAA Tournament consideration, the rest of the SEC got better. Much like Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt, Fox built his program in a very old-school manner, relying on bringing in relatively unheralded freshmen, developing them into something, and bringing in very few transfers. Stallings brought in five four-year transfers in 17 years at Vanderbilt; Fox brought in exactly one in his nine years in Athens.
That led to some pretty amazing roster continuity (at least by the standards of the 2010s), but it also produced a roster that was mostly competing for NIT bids. It’s actually pretty amazing how Fox and Andy Kennedy — the other deposed coach in the SEC this year — took very different routes to achieve similar results.
Yet while Kennedy’s team really did take a downturn in 2017-18, leading to his dismissal, Fox’s team was basically a standard-grade Mark Fox team at Georgia. In SEC play, Georgia went 2-5 in games decided by five points or less and fielded the second-worst offense in the conference. They were better on the defensive end (5th), but got outscored by 2.9 points per 100 possessions in conference play.
And that was with Yante Maten, the AP SEC Player of the Year after averaging 19.3 ppg and 8.6 rpg. That Georgia got that level of production from Maten and still managed to finish 7-11 in the conference should tell you quite a bit about how subpar the rest of Georgia’s team was. And now Maten has graduated.
And in comes Tom Crean, the source of the greatest memes on the internet. When the headline of this story is an actual screenshot of your coach, you are in for a good time. Crean is an accomplished head coach, regardless of how much Indiana fans wanted him gone. He went 190-96 and made a Final Four in nine years at Marquette; in nine years at Indiana, after taking over following Kelvin Sampson’s exit, he went 166-135 and won two Big Ten titles.
If Georgia, a program that’s won one SEC regular season title ever, gets even half of what Crean did at Indiana, they should be happy. Georgia’s basketball program has long been regarded as a sleeping giant due in large part to the hefty amount of talent in the state — sound familiar? — but has never been able to capitalize. That’s probably in large part due to the fact that they’ve never really taken basketball seriously. With Crean in charge, though, we’re about to find out if the job is really what it’s cracked up to be. It’s a program that has only made three NCAA Tournaments in the last fifteen years, and hasn’t won a tournament game since 2002 — and hasn’t made it out of the first weekend since 1996.
As far as the near term goes, Crean inherits a better situation than he did at Indiana in 2008 (which... isn’t saying much), but it’s still not a great situation. Remember, this team went 7-11 in the SEC and finished 65th in KenPom with Yante Maten. Crean did dip into some of the in-state talent pool to bring in three of the four members of the freshman class (though really, two of those were Fox recruits), and the roster is sprinkled with former four-star recruits... but there aren’t a lot of proven players on this roster.
William Jackson II, Tyree Crump, and Jordan Harris were all highly-regarded recruits from the state of Georgia, the kind of players that the head basketball coach at Georgia has to land to get in order to succeed. Mark Fox convinced all three to come to Athens (or in Jackson’s case, stay in Athens); that none of the three have really lived up to expectations is part of the reason that Fox is no longer the coach.
Jackson, a 6’2” senior, has come the closest to being a productive player, and that only happened during his junior year. After averaging 4.1 ppg with an assist-to-turnover ratio barely above water as a sophomore, his scoring average jumped to 8.4 ppg with a nearly 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio as a junior. But that also came with 34.8 percent shooting, including an awful 40.8 percent inside the arc. Crump, a former top 100 recruit, averaged 6.5 ppg as a sophomore last year — albeit in just 14.8 minutes per game. (That a player as talented as Crump was playing less than 15 minutes a game as a sophomore is sort of weird.) And Harris, another four-star recruit, averaged 15.8 minutes per game and just 3.5 ppg as a sophomore while playing in only 18 games, missing the final 12 games of the season due to a suspension.
6’4” sophomore Teshaun Hightower came on late in the season, scoring in double figures in three of the team’s last five games; those were also his only three games all season in double figures. Those four are the returning guards. Crean added a couple more late in the cycle after taking the job. Tye Fagan, a 6’3” freshman from Thomaston, got out of a letter of intent with Middle Tennessee after Kermit Davis left; while Ignas Sargiunas, a 6’5” combo guard from Lithuania, chose the Bulldogs late over SMU and Arizona State. There is upside in this backcourt, but basically zero proven parts.
Even with Maten gone, Georgia does have a few intriguing pieces in the frontcourt. 6’9” senior Derek Ogbeide has never developed into much of an offensive force outside of five feet from the basket, but he’s a good defender and one of the SEC’s best rebounders. 6’8” sophomore Rayshaun Hammonds, a top 50 recruit out of high school in Norcross, was supposed to be Maten’s replacement last year — but when Maten returned for his senior year, Hammonds was ticketed for a smaller role than expected. Still, even while playing 24.2 minutes per game, Hammonds averaged 6.7 ppg and 4.9 rpg and figures to play a bigger role in 2018-19. And 6’11” sophomore Nicolas Claxton, the son of former UGA star Charles Claxton, showed impressive upside as a freshman — blocking 1.3 shots per game and also shooting 36.4 percent from three in 14.7 minutes per game.
A pair of seniors — 6’9” Mike Edwards and 6’6” E’torrion Wilridge — are kind of indicative of the negative of Fox’s reliance on four-year players; Edwards and Wilridge have both taken up a scholarship for four years while not really doing much other than providing an additional body off the bench. Edwards saw his minutes cut in half as a junior, and Wilridge has averaged 1.5 ppg for his career (and has started 20 games!)
Two freshmen signed with Fox in the fall and stuck with Crean when he took the job. Amanze Ngumezi, a 6’9”, 245-pound four-star recruit from Savannah, is the attention-grabber here and should at least provide depth up front as a freshman, if not more. 6’6” swingman JoJo Toppin, a high school teammate of Hammonds, was a three-star recruit and will probably come off the bench as a freshman.
|11/1||West Georgia (exhibition)|
|11/16||Sam Houston State|
|11/19||vs. Illinois State|
|11/20||Cayman Islands Classic|
|11/21||Cayman Islands Classic|
|12/22||at Georgia Tech|
|2/12||at Texas A&M|
|2/23||at Ole Miss|
|3/9||at South Carolina|
Sometimes, you can tell quite a bit about what a coach thinks about his team from the nonconference schedule he puts together. And sometimes, like above, a new coach is saddled with a schedule loaded with the back ends of series signed by his predecessor. Georgia plays a return game at Temple in the second game of the season and ends 2018 with the back end of a home-and-home with UMass; there’s also a game with Oakland that was part of a 2-for-1 signed to get Yante Maten a game in front of his home crowd. There is also, of course, the rivalry game with Georgia Tech just before Christmas, and a home game against Arizona State. They’ll also play in the Cayman Islands Classic, which includes Clemson, Creighton, Boise State, St. Bonaventure, and Georgia State — not a field with a ton of names, but one that does have some potentially salty teams in it. If everything’s not clicking early in the season, Georgia could have a bad record entering SEC play.
In SEC play, having an annual home-and-home with Auburn is suddenly not a good thing; neither is the home-and-home with Florida, for that matter. Georgia will also see South Carolina, LSU, and Ole Miss twice; the last one might be a battle for the basement of the conference.
In the long term, Tom Crean should be at least a good hire for Georgia, and could be a great hire. This is, after all, a man who has been to a Final Four and did much better at Indiana than he was ever given credit for.
In the short term, though, Tom Crean with a roster built by Mark Fox is just a weird match. Mark Fox built his teams around tough defense and stodgy offense; Crean is a man who built great offensive teams at Indiana that were held back by iffy defenses. Given time, Crean should be able to build a roster to his liking, but much like the transition from Kevin Stallings to Bryce Drew at Vanderbilt, this one’s probably going to take time to work. There are some intriguing pieces on the roster, particularly in the frontcourt — I like the upside of Nicolas Claxton, and Rayshaun Hammonds was a top 50 recruit — but the roster is very unproven. There just aren’t a lot of players whom Crean knows he can rely on.
This looks, at least on paper, like one of the SEC’s worst teams in 2018-19, though it probably won’t be a bad team — just the kind of team that finishes 13th or 14th in the current iteration of the SEC. Crean’s real strength will become apparent once he’s had a couple of years to recruit players into the program.